1. I felt safe everywhere.
About one month after moving to Kyoto, Japan, I had the strangest physical sensation. What was that peculiar feeling, like a thick liquid slipping down off my body and flowing away? What accounted for my remaining lightness of spirit?
That was stress departing. I realized, with a jolt of surprise, that I finally felt safe for the first time in my adult life as a single woman living in a city.
What melted away was a semi-conscious, pervasive tension from living in an American city – a personal caution, a wariness, knowing that I could potentially be mugged on the street, held at gunpoint or knife point, be robbed or burglarized in my home, be assaulted, raped or otherwise violently assaulted at any given time, at any random place. I didn’t feel paranoid or consciously fearful; there was just a mild pervasive threat riding just below the surface of my daily existence.
While living in Japan that long-standing burden vanished. And I can tell you, it felt damn good to be safe.
2. People truly cared about keeping their streets and neighborhoods clean.
Undoubtedly Japan’s immaculately clean cities, towns and neighborhoods helped instill that calming sense of safety I experienced. In Kyoto I lived in a traditional Japanese neighborhood in Shijogyu Ward, just south of Kyoto Station. I soon discovered why all the sidewalks, streets and homes in Japan look so immaculately, spotlessly clean. Japanese home owners start each morning early by sweeping the streets and sidewalks in front of their homes, then hosing off the pavement and wiping clean their houses, windows and doors. After living in Japan a while longer, I realized that early every morning throughout Japan’s towns and cities, city street sweepers bustle around, thoroughly sweeping and washing public plazas, covered shopping arcades and city roads.
By the time most people head out to work or school, the world as they know it is utterly spic and span.
3. Japanese-Style bathing was a communal and relaxing experience.
Sitting just 8” above the tiled floor on a child-size wooden stool, I would toss another bucket of steaming hot water over my back and marvel again at how infinitely more relaxing showering is while sitting down rather than standing up. Glancing around the sento (public bath house) while rubbing a sudsy washcloth over my body, I’d watch the neighborhood women intently scrubbing the backs and shoulders of their grannies, friends or young daughters. I’d reflect again on the lovely Japanese custom of shared family bathing.
After I was clean from head to toe, and only then, would I stand up, cross the wet bath house floor, and slip into one of the sento’s clear hot communal baths. I was reminded once again how much fresher and more pleasant it is to soak in a pool of immaculate bath water. I wondered how I ever could have taken a western-style bath, soaking in grey-ish water that I’d just fouled by washing my hair and body. Never again, that was for sure.
Soaking in the wonderfully soothing hot sento bath until I turned flamingo pink, I’d quietly appreciate my great fortune. The public bath house was located just one block from my Japanese-style house in Shijogyo Ward. I visited faithfully once or twice a week. Each time I washed away not only the dirt and oil of daily city life, but also muscle tension, stress and worries.
4. I was welcomed everywhere I went and customer service was genuine.
“Irashiamase!” was the cheerful, enthusiastic call that greeted me every time I entered any store in Japan.“Welcome!”
Whether it was a simple convenience store, a small family-owned shop, a luxury-goods store, restaurant or hotel, I was always made to feel supremely welcomed and valued. Inside each and every store, clerks gave me their full, undivided and immensely-interested attention. Somehow they also managed to avoid being intrusive or over-bearing. It was perfectly polished customer attention.
As I departed, whether I’d bought anything or not, the clerks always called out, “Arigato Gozaimasu,” while performing an impeccable, polite bow. “Thank you.”
I particularly looked forward to the daily opening of Japanese department stores. At precisely 10 am, a row of immaculately-dressed, white-gloved and hatted staff would ceremoniously pull open the sparkling glass doors and bow in unison, “Irashiamase!” to the morning’s first customers.
I, along with a small crowd of eager guests, would proceed inside and head to the escalator, where two more uniformed staff bowed and chirped out their welcome. Sometimes I’d head to the elevators, where a white-gloved attendant helped escort me onto the next available elevator. Inside, yet another white-gloved-and-hatted elevator attendant pressed floor buttons, announced each floor and held open doors while guests stepped off and on.
Living in Japan, I got used to such wonderful customer service day in and day out, at each shop, restaurant and business.
5. I could eat an entire lunch worth of free food samples set out around the vast food floors of Daimaru, Isetan, Hankyu and Takashimaya Department Stores.
I tended to favor Takashimaya at the corner of Shijo and Kawaramachi Avenues in Kyoto. I taught English at ECC just down the street, so I’d pop over to Takashimaya’s basement food floor during my break or after work to pick up some tasty Japanese snacks, a meal, or freshly-baked European breads. And, of course, some free food samples. Once inside I’d be completely surrounded by everything edible in Japan.
Entire departments on that floor were devoted to tsukemono (pickled vegetables), sushi and sashimi, yaki-niku (various grilled meats), obento (boxed lunches), udon and soba and somen (types of noodles), onigiri (rice balls with seasonings), wagashi (Japanese sweets) as well as fresh produce, groceries, order-by-the-kilo salad and meat delis, European-style cakes and bakeries, Japanese-style bakeries and a food-gift department.
6. People were patient about food, and waited for the seasonal delicacies to arrive.
Unlike most formerly seasonal foods in America, which you can now get year-round, including oranges and grapefruits, corn-on-the-cob and strawberries, many Japanese delicacies can literally only be eaten during their particular growing season. And people tended to eagerly anticipate the upcoming season’s specialties.
As each autumn approached I looked forward to miso-yaki nasu (grilled eggplant with miso sauce), gingko gohan (rice steamed with gingko nuts) and kabocha (boiled pumpkin).
As days grew progressively shorter and colder, I’d impatiently anticipate the deeply warming affects of suki-yaki (grilled meat and vegetables) and shabu-shabu (boiled vegetables, seafood, tofu and noodles), both prepared and eaten communally from big pots set on the table.
New Year season brought perhaps my all-time favorite seasonal specialty: Osechi, which consisted of elaborate three-tiered food boxes filled with assorted meats, seafood, vegetables, rices and pickles. For several days around January 1st, like most of my Japanese neighbors, I’d completely stop cooking and opt for picking out delicacies from my osechi box throughout the day.
As spring approached, I’d get excited about delicately boiled kogomi (fresh fern shoots), takenoko (young bamboo shoots) and other spring greens.
And in summer I enjoyed cooling dishes like hiya yakku (tofu served in cold sauce with garnishes), zaru-soba and somen (noodles served in cold broths with garnishes) and kakigori (shaved ice with syrups, beans and fruits).
7. There was a specific street vendor for everything I craved and needed.
During the cold months of autumn and winter I always loved emerging from a train or bus station to a bellowing, “Yaki-imooooo!” Ah, a grilled sweet potato vendor. He’d yell out while blowing his distinctive, high-pitched whistle at the passing throngs.
At that same time of year outside department stores and along shopping streets I’d hear, “Hai, Dozo!” The roasted chestnut vendor was yelling his welcoming message as the wonderfully pungent, nut fragrance wafted through the air and chestnuts rolled around in their bed of tiny black charcoal stones.
On summer days, while I was bustling around inside my traditional Japanese house, I’d always know when the vegetable vendor was making her weekly rounds through my neighborhood. Her distinctive “Toooot, Weee,” horn cut through the air, sending all the household ladies scampering out their doors to catch the best produce selections.
Likewise, I always knew when the recycled paper collection vendor had arrived. “Clack, clack, clack” barked out his wooden clappers. At other times, a lively musical tune announced the arrival of the garbage truck.
8. Japanese mannerisms were so unique and held so much emotion.
Just about every day while sitting on a train, eating at a local restaurant or just walking along the roads, I’d catch snippets of, “So, so, so, so, so,” drifting through the air. Some Japanese woman would be politely expressing interest in a friend’s story. When I bothered to glance around, I could usually quickly identify them. An intently-focused companion would be bowing slightly forward over and over again while her friend chirped on excitedly.
Nearly as frequently I’d spot a Japanese Sarari man (salary man) standing alone on a train platform or sidewalk, barking out sharply into his phone, “Hai, hai, hai! Wakarimashita,” and bowing briskly with each “Hai.” Presumably he was speaking with his supervisor. “Yes, yes, yes! I understand.”
Another mannerism that always brought a smile to my face was the charming habit of young Japanese ladies covering their mouths shyly whenever they laughed, smiled or used a toothpick after eating meals.
Perhaps one of the oddest mannerisms I encountered regularly was the long, drawn-out sucking-back-through-the-teeth sound, “Ssshhhhhhhh,” that inevitably sliced the air sharply. Some poor anguished Japanese man would be expressing his great discomfort while considering a difficult question or request.
All part of daily life in Japan.
9. The ultra-extreme youth fashions were so creative and expressive.
Stepping onto a train on any random day, I was always happy to discover I was sharing the car with a pair of ultra-costumed young Goth chicks with strangely pale skin and dark lipstick, dressed entirely in black Victorian-inspired dresses, often with ruffled edges and/or a mock apron.
Another day I would bump into the ultimate Japanese punk, sporting a foot-high blood-red mohawk, skin-tight black tights, heavily metal-encrusted stomping boots and spiked leather collar. Another ride would bring me a Japanese Rasta with long dreadlocks, a red-yellow-green knit cap, loose tie-dyed shirt and pants. Another time I’d spot the wanna-be-Gansta-Rappa with cap skewed to the side, wearing a way-over-sized hoody, Bling pendant and loose jeans with the crotch hanging to the knees (but all immaculately clean, pressed and brand new).
Seeing all that always made my day.