Is it possible to fall in love with a country in just two weeks? In some ways, Japan is very similar to the US. Every other block has the old, familiar sight of a Starbucks, McDonald’s, Seven-Eleven Convenience Store, and bus stops. Go to a store and you’ll find Pringles and Doritos chips, Tide laundry soap, Dove shampoo, and Apple computers. Afternoon tv shows tend to be some serious drama that is reminiscent of US soap operas. Despite the language barrier, you can always still recognize that look from a Japanese mother towards her child that means innately “sit still.”
But at the same time, there is something so unique, so different about life in Japan. So here are 10 things I will miss about Japan (and 1 thing I won’t).
The extent of Japanese history is almost incomprehensible; this small, but ancient nation has seen dynasties come and dynasties go; survived two World Wars; confronted the introduction of several major competing religions; hosted the international Olympics; just to mention a small portion of its past. It has watched as generation after generation gave birth, lived, loved, fought, built, taught, survived, and passed away. It’s history is far longer and more extensive than anything you would see in the United States. Even those locations that housed the Native American tribes do not have a history as vast as that which the Japanese can boast of. Consequently, you will find history everywhere. Shrines are hidden amongst or loom over (for the larger ones) most of the streets no matter where you go. Visit the port cities and you’ll find everything from WWII ships to ancient religious temples. Go to the in-land towns and you’ll see monuments to famous philosophers; museums scattered all over and dedicated to everything from anime to the development of sushi; great Christian churches, and emperors’ palaces. Visit the countryside and you’ll find Zen temples, gorgeous old gardens, and forts around every bend. No matter what, there is definitely always some elderly man or women just waiting to tell you about all their experiences and bestow knowledge from their great founts of wisdom. In the US, you often have to go to the museum; here, you just go around the corner.
Actually, one of the things I love the most about Japan (and this is drastically different from what you would see in China or Korea) is the orderly way in which they live. If you ever look into the architecture or art of Japan, you will likely notice how parallel everything is. There really isn’t a whole lot of abstract or unstructured elements in their daily art. The buildings may be elaborate, but one half of the temples exterior will look exactly like the other half. The same is true of their lives. Everyone knows the precise order in which daily life is supposed to go. They are on time (including buses and trains generally), they stand in straight lines to get on transportation, the children and professionals all wear uniforms or badges that reflect their position or standing, they stand on one side of the escalator and walk up the other. Everything runs incredibly smoothly. They busier they get, the more orderly everything becomes. None of the scattered-brained mess that is the American life and business structure. It is always easy to figure out what you are supposed to do and the way in which you do it. It makes figuring life out pretty easy; just watch the Japanese person next to you.
Honestly, I have never in my life seen so many well-behaved children. I’ve been here for several weeks, and I can safely say that I have seen two children in total that I would say were badly behaved (one was throwing a fit and one was running around in a store). They obey their parents, they mind the rules, they don’t scream or run around or cause problems for the people around them. There is none of that concern with having kids in nice restaurants. They will sit in the chair nicely for hours if you ask. They are polite to adults and one another; and I have found them to almost always be generally sweet-natured, self-entertaining, and overall contented. They make American kids look kind of like monsters.
Everyone is so kind in Japan! Actually, they might all be mentally saying how stupid us foreigners are and you’d never tell since they are always smiling. But seriously, I receive more assistance and helping hands in even Japanese cities than I ever saw in small-town Mid-western US, much less major US cities. You can stop anyone on the street for directions, and they will do their dead leveled best to help you. If they don’t speak enough English to give you directions, they will often walk you there themselves. They never say anything when you are trying to count through more than $47.00 in change (yes it can pile up). Step on their feet in the bouncy train, and they’ll smile and help you hold on better. Now they aren’t always the most friendly on their own, you usually have to approach them first. And they can be very strict and forbidding when you do something disruptive or that goes against their culture (talk loudly on buses, laugh too much at night, mouth off to an elder). But if you keep in mind that this is their country, and try to abide by their societal rule, they will do their best to accommodate your efforts.
There is no way to adequately explain to you the amazing thing that is shopping in Japan. And it isn’t just that they have a wonderfully, almost incomprehensible array of awesome things for sale (they’ve got everything from Gucci to unique dress shops to souvenir stores everywhere). Nor is it just that they have the best ever malls (Kawasaki Mall in Yokohama; and Kyoto Station are two that I have been to and both rock). Although all of that is true. If you want it, Japan has it and at pretty much any price. In the same day (potentially the same store) you can get a Louis Vuitton bag, a traditional Japanese hand fan, a street vendor’s awesome cold noodles, a hair-do by a foreign-trained stylist, fabric handwoven by a local grandmother, and a French pastry for dessert. Plus, there is always that stuff that you will only find in Japan and Asia (parasols, great face moisturizer masks, fish-flavored cheese sticks, and coffee in every vending machine). But, I also just love the whole experience of shopping itself here. They wrap each item individually, carefully binding up fragile items and laying out jewelry purchases like they are giving you a present. Ask them for help, and they will often walk you to 4 different stores to help you find what they don’t have. There is amazing service in Japan; they perfect it like they perfect everything else, and I love it.