Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ten unexpected things about living in Japan

I remember the first time I looked out the plane window thousands of feet in the air and saw the graceful curves of Hokkaido's Eastern coastline. The sense of awe I felt reminds me of a dream I once had of floating in space gazing at the Earth's surface from above. Looking at the world we inhabit from a different perspective both literally and metaphorically is a mind-shifting view.

Fast-forward to a few days later, and I'm standing in a supermarket with no idea what to do with my recent purchases without any bags to put them in. The next day, I'm staring at a Japanese ATM wondering how the hell I'm supposed to get cash out of it.

After the so-called "honeymoon period"in a foreign country, life comes crashing back and it hits you unawares like a ton of bricks, and there are always plenty of things to trip you up no matter how much preparation you did beforehand. You will end up asking yourself, "How do you work this thing?" so many times, you just might grow a beard and start singing folksy songs about earth sandwiches with a video blogger who has a disturbing fondness for little duckies.

Welcome to your new life.

In a futile attempt to prepare future expats for the strange situations they will inevitable find themselves in, I would like to now share the top ten most unexpected things I wish they would have told me about Japan before I came here.

10. Furniture

It stands to reason that what people find comfortable will differ between cultures, but it's not something you really think about until you sit/lay down on a piece of furniture and realize from experience what the standard is.

A couple months before I moved here, I had a pleasant Skype chat with my predecessor. From the camera angle, I could see that I was going to inherit a blue leather couch. "Alright," I thought, "Not too fond of leather, but I can deal with that." It also turned out that my pred had replaced her futon (the thin mattress on the floor kind, not the thing graduates insist on sleeping on because they refuse to let go of college) with a western-style bed. "Great!", I thought, "I didn't want to sleep on the floor anyway."

A month later, I was checking out the place in person for the first time and was pretty happy with everything. Then I sat on the couch. The first thing you will learn is how damn LOW Japanese furniture is. People with questionable knees will not enjoy getting up from or sitting down on these things. In fact, my husband who is currently suffering from osteoarthritis usually says to hell with it and sits on the floor where he can sit with his legs straight.

Another annoying thing about furniture you never realize until you have to deal with it is that if you want to replace one piece of living room furniture (such my crappy couch), you have to adjust and/or replace almost EVERYTHING else. For example, I could replace my couch, but then the monitor we use to watch TV and game with would be too low. I'd have to get a new stand and what I had been using as a table to actually do work on would probably be used more as a coffee table to keep all my clutter completely useful and necessary things.

But wait, you say, you could go the opposite direction and either have one of those couches that sits completely on the floor or use zabuton (literally "futons for sitting". I fondly call them "ass cushions")! Not so fast: now the monitor is too low and I have nowhere to go with my legs. Like many lazy Westerners, I need something to lounge on.

Japanese furniture is also HARD. Again, this is a personal preference, but I don't understand how anyone can find a hard surface comfortable. Do an experiment for me- go cuddle a kitten. Give it a good hug. Now go cuddle a rock. Which do you prefer? That's what I thought...

Anyway, I don't know about you rock cuddlers out there, but I do know my own body. I have very wide hips and shoulders. Laying on a hard surface gives me massive hip pain in both my spine and where the bed puts extreme pressure on my hip bone due to how my weight is distributed.

Also, Japan hasn't managed to move on from using springs in their western mattresses.

The height and hardness difference between Japanese and Western furniture is so great that Japanese furniture/home decor stores such as Nitori separate their furniture floor into western and Japanese-style sections.

9. Pillows and Bedsheets

Lastly, we have what you put over your furniture. Pillows have the same challenges as furniture in that they tend to be thin and hard. With my aforementioned wide shoulders, I tend to wake up with terrible shoulder cramps if my pillows are too thin.

However, one additional aspect to pillows is their stuffing. Most pillows I've encountered in Japan that come in ryokan or even some Western hotels are filled with these weird plastic beads or foam pieces. I have no idea how these are supposed to be comfortable. I've also had pillows with huge, pokey feathers that make the pillow feel really lumpy. The closest I could ever find to a large pillow with soft, non-lumpy filling is a super-thin variety with a mesh section sewn over the middle filled with the aforementioned plastic tubes.

Thankfully, there are many other options in stores like Nitori or even Ikea if you're lucky enough to live close to one where you can find more western-style pillows from synthetic stuffing to memory foam. I managed to find a nice memory foam topper to help with hips and back.

Japanese bedsheets are something you just have to get used to, unfortunately. Even with a Western bed, Japanese sheet sets are sold to include a fitted sheet for your mattress, one or two pillow cases, and a cover for a futon blanket (think of it like a "comforter"). There is no sheet to have between your body and the blanket. This can seem really inconvenient during the hot and humid Japanese summer months, but I usually end up using the blanket cover as a sheet and it works just fine.

Lastly, be sure to check the size of your bed before venturing out to buy sheets since Japanese mattress sizes are different from Western ones. I found this website to be very helpful (Japanese), but here are the most common type of bed sizes in Japan:

シングル- single (S): 970mm x 1950mm
more like a twin size in the US. Intended for one person.

セミダブル- Semi-Double (SD): 1220mm x 1950mm
close to what Americans call a "full". Many Japanese newlyweds go with this size until they can afford a double. Luckily, this was the size my predecessor chose and it works fine for me and my husband for now (and coincidentally, we were newlyweds when we moved here!).

ダブル- Double (D): 1400mm x 1950mm
as the name implies. Standard for married couples.

クイーン- Queen (Q): 1700mm x 1950mm
as the name implies.

キング- King (K): 1940mm x 1950mm
as the name implies.

There is also a "small" version of the single, and "wide" and "long" versions of everything else.

8. [insert region here] Food

The US is such a mish-mash of cultures that the typical American of European heritage doesn't really have a good idea of what real "Chinese food" or even "Mexican food" looks or tastes like. "Chinese" and "Japanese" restaurants will have Americanized versions of "ramen" (Chinese), "sushi" (Japanese), and "bubble tea" (Korean) all in the same menu and can be managed by a person of any Southeast Asian ethnicity. There are authentic Japanese restaurants run by people of Japanese decent, but they are fewer and more expensive where the ingredients have to come from.

There are no California rolls in Japan (though most Japanese people have heard of them). There are no sushi rolls deep-fried in tempura. Sashimi is considered more high-gourmet than sushi rolls and you'll never find the latter at your pricey enkais. There is no sesame chicken or orange chicken to be found.

Of course, this works both ways. Japan has "pizza", but it is not PIZZA. Japan has "hamburgers", but not American hamburgers. You can even go to Pizza Hut and taste the difference and find toppings that we would find, well, strange: corn, mayonnaise, tuna, eggplant, etc. This isn't by accident, either- companies such as Coca-Cola change up the recipes for there beverages depending on where they're being sold in order to appeal to the tastes of different cultures. For example, Japanese people tend to find Western food to be too sweet and sugary so the formula is adjusted accordingly to make the flavor milder. Another factor is the quality of ingredients- Japan has to work with what it can get and adjust their prices accordingly (pizza, even the Japanese version, is ridiculously expensive).

One last point of view to consider is that even in Japan, a country much closer to Korea and China still has it's own Japanified versions of Korean and Chinese food. Japanese ramen isn't exactly like authentic Chinese ramen.

7. No Over-Attentive Waiters

I found this to be a huge plus. One of my pet peeves in the US is a waiter that can't seem to just leave you alone and let you enjoy your meal. They always seem to be there to interrupt your conversation, but never there when you actually need them.

Introducing the pin-pon button! No need to wait around: just push the button when you need assistance.

Of course, this could pose a bit of problem to those who come to Japan for the first time and don't know enough Japanese to understand the waiter when they tell them to push the button when they're ready to order. But once you know of it's existence, it's like getting a wand on your eleventh birthday and the first few lines of Rush's "Discovery" play in the background. What can this strange device be? When I pluck it, it gives forth a sound...

6. Drink Bars

Even though most Japanophiles know about the small serving sizes here, they may find themselves  stare around in bewilderment looking for the soda dispenser in vain after finishing a drink at McDonald's. It's kind of a blessing in disguise if you think about it...

There typically aren't free refills at fast food restaurants, but there will be a "drink bar" at family-style restaurants like Seizeriya or Gusto. For a fee, you can drink to your heart's content and tend to offer a much bigger variety than a typical soda dispenser. There are cold beverages such as tea, Calpis, and Fanta and hot beverages like hot cocao, french vanilla, and hot teas. Most menus will include a drink bar at a cheaper price with a meal as a combo. Restaurants with drink bars are really popular near universities and high schools where students tend to spend their time there studying late into the night. Most karaoke boxes also have drink bars available.

5. Grocery Bags and Purchase Tape

Japan has an interesting relationship with plastic bags. Whereas the famous California bill to ban the proliferation of free single-use bags is stuck in typical Capitol Hill Purgatory, Japan has been enforcing it since 2007 under the Revised Containers and Packaging Recycling Law. In a nutshell, most Japanese stores will impose a fee for the use of plastic bags. Unfortunately, many clerks won't explain this to you either because they aren't aware of your ignorance or they just suffer from "I'd-rather-not-talk-to-foreigners" syndrome. In hindsight, it was probably a bit of bad luck considering every other store I've been to since will charge you the bags by default.

The other half of the reason I ended up nonplussed in a grocery store when I first arrived in Tokyo was because clerks in Japanese grocery stores don't tend to bag your groceries for you. Not only did I not have any bags, I had a basket I was sure I wasn't supposed to take home with me. Most of the time, you'll end up bagging your own groceries after the purchase and there are small tables beyond the registers to get your business done. Whether they bag it for you is dependent on the store, but if it's a moderately slow day, they will do it for you especially if you bring your own.

Lastly, we have the mysterious proof-of-purchase tape. Its origins are a bit murky, but one Japan Times writer did some digging. Basically, this is proof you didn't steal the item in question (because receipts aren't sufficient for some reason). If it doesn't go in a bag, it gets the tape. After bagging my items one day, I found that everything didn't quite fit and I decided to just carry one of the big bottles. On my way out the door, a clerk ran up to me saying that it was "dame" (not good/unacceptable) and slapped some tape on the bottle. Lesson learned.

On the flip-side, since everything needs proof of having been purchased in some form, I find that convenience stores especially tend to over-bag. On top of that, they separate cold and hot items with different bags. For example, I could end up with a hot dish they just warmed up for me in one bag, and a single bottled beverage in another. It's even worse when you end up with a bag for just one small item. Again, it could be the ole "I'd-rather-just-do-something-than-ask" phenomenon, but whenever I go in for a drink, I just ask for the tape so I can carry it out.

4. Household appliances

Ah, the washing machine. One of a household's most taken for grated appliances. It's not one of those things you'd think about before moving to a foreign country, but absolutely necessary after sweating your ass off in your suit jacket for three days at the Tokyo Orientation and need clothes for tomorrow. So you dump your clothes and laundry soap in (if you have any) and then take a look at the console and slowly start to panic. 

The same thing will happen with your microwave, rice cooker (you've probably heard of them before, but not how to use them!), and your vacuum cleaner if you're unfortunate enough to have one with the antiquated disposable bags instead of a removable dust receptacle.

A couple other things about laundry: considering you're probably living in a tiny LDK apartment or "one-room mansion", you're laundry machine is probably going to be smaller than you're used to (especially if there's more then one person staying there!). Also, you won't have a dryer so be prepared to go to a laundromat or hang your clothes in creative places.

3. Healthcare and Available Medication

I'm a full supporter of socialized medicine, but it does have it's pitfalls. Widely available healthcare and an aging, overworked population results in people trying their best to stay healthy and nip any impending illness in the bud so they don't have to miss work and use their sick days. Add into the mix a lack of effective, over-the-counter medicines like sudafed and ibuprofen, and you end up with a lot of people going to the clinic at the same time. You will be waiting a long time to see a doctor.

When you find yourself feeling under the weather, you have a couple options: the small clinic just down the street, or the hospital in the next town over if you live in the countryside like I do. Smaller clinics are great since they're usually open until 6pm-7pm and offer much shorter waiting times. These clinics tend to specialize, though, so check to make sure the place isn't limited to one department.

However, you might find the doctors there a bit less attentive and more abrupt. For example, I went to my local clinic for a mysterious stomachache I'd had for about a week. For some reason, clinics in Japan don't take preliminary measurements like height, weight, and blood pressure beforehand so they showed me right into the doctor who asked me the usual questions ("When did it start?", "Any diarrhea?", "Any blood come out?", etc.). He then asked me to lie down where he felt my stomach a bit and asked where it hurt. Then he wrote me a script, told me the meds might affect the color of my bowel movements and that was that. The whole thing took less than five minutes. No explanations of what was wrong with me or anything.

Hospitals offer the usual fancy machines like x-ray and MRI, but they also offer a wider range of doctors who specialize in their particular field. I also find the doctors a lot more conversational and attentive. Unfortunately, each department has it's own set times when they except patients and they usually don't take anyone after noon. This means taking time off work. These hospitals are also independent from each other and that means there is no universal system to keep patient information. I recently took my husband in to get his knees looked at and they took x-rays. After a recommendation from my teachers, we went to a different hospital to get a second opinion and they had to take yet another x-ray since they don't share information with each other.

Like I said, most of the OTC meds here are weak-sauce and won't do you much good. Tylenol was just brought into the Japanese market in the past few years, but it's expensive. The upside to getting it through a doctor is that insurance will cover it and effectively make it cheaper than buying painkillers outright and it's not too hard to get a script from any doctor for simple things like painkillers or loperamides. There is also a plethora of pharmacies, and you can fill your prescription at any of them. Take care though: sometimes smaller stores will not have one of your meds in stock and will need time to order it from the closest major city.
I absolutely love one of the pharmacist at my local place, though. He always tries to speak in English and explains everything as best he can.

Huge downside: birth control is not covered by health insurance. You will end up dropping $30-$40 a month for the pill. The only semi-permanent option is the IUD and good luck convincing anyone to give you one if you're single and/or childless. I've said it before and I'll say it again: get a long-term method in place and do it BEFORE you come to Japan.
Also not covered: psychoactive and stimulant drugs used to treat psychological disorders.

2. ATMs and convenience stores

I'm lumping these two together because they have one big thing in common in that they are both super convenient and helpful, but only after you've mastered how to use them.

The only convenient stores I usually encountered in the US were housed in gas stations and usually only provided terrible snacks, drinks, and maybe a movie rental service and a few basic drugs. In fact, I find that a Walgreens is more like a convenient store than actual convenient stores because of their wide variety of services.

Japanese stores really put the "convenient" convenient store. They offer everything from printing/copying to package delivery. Many even have kiosks where one can purchase tickets for a plethora of things such as concerts, amusement parks and highway bus fare. Another great feature is the ability to pay for online orders in cash (using my American debit card incurs bank fees and the terrible exchange rate). Most importantly, they aren't stingy with their bathrooms. That's what they're there for, after all!

And of course, we have Japanese atms. I've mentioned that Japan is a cash society before, and that means more trips to the atm than most foreigners are used to. The good news is that there are atms (and convenience stores with atms) everywhere. You usually can't drive for more than five or ten minutes in the countryside without finding one. In the city there seems to be at least one on every block.

One of my favorite functions of the Japanese atm is the automatic transfer of funds from one account to another. Since Japanese banks don't use checks at all, most people transfer money through the atm. All you need is some basic info like their name, bank and account number. And if that seems rather inconvenient to have to input all that information every time, you can have the machine make card for you so all you have to do in the future is swipe the card.

Another big boon to money transfers in Japan is that an atm from one bank can transfer to another of a different bank with no fees or hassle. In the US, a person usually has to go the bank the payee belongs to in order to deposit money in their account. In Japan, you only need to do it from an atm where your account is held and can send money anywhere.

1. Lines

There is a Japanese word that is typically hard for foreigners to deal with if they haven't assimilated yet: gaman. Japanese people have a reputation as being very stoic and patient. I'm not a big fan of stereotypes, but this generalization does stem from a kernel of truth: waiting is a fact of life in Japan. This will not become truly clear until you have to deal with tedious procedures like opening a bank account, applying for cheaper health insurance payments, or waiting to see a physician. As much as I love atms, there always seems to be a line since most people prefer to deal with finances closer to home than go to the bank.

Going to a festival? You will wait in line. Riding the train at rush hour? You will stand on the train waiting for an open seat. Checking out at the grocery store on their big sale day? More waiting in line. You will no longer wonder how handheld gaming became Japan's biggest gaming industry when you've rode the trains long enough.

Oddly enough, when waiting in lines becomes such a large part of your life, you begin to assimilate it. Eventually, instead of it being a huge inconvenience, it's just another part of your day like making breakfast or driving to work.

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