One last hurrah, 22 More Subtle Differences Between Japan and the USA

While I've been back in the US for nearly two months now, when I was still in Japan I kept a running list of differences that I would add to whenever I came across a new one. These are the last set that never made it out before I left the country, mostly small observations, but hopefully you can still find them interesting.

  1. Since an eye test using the Latin alphabet wouldn't make much sense to use in Japan, one developed by Russians in 1923 using circles is used instead, seen on the right side of this picture.
  2. For the most part streets don't have names or even numbers, but it is instead the blocks are numbered. Watch this video for a great explanation:
  3. Newspapers are far from in trouble, some even publish twice a day. Japan is second only to Iceland in newspapers published per 1,000 people (634.5 newspapers, source).
  4. Japan has 12 cities with a population of over 1,000,000 people, the U.S. has 9.
  5. Japan is approximately 4% the size of the U.S..
  6. You know how Philly has Cheesesteaks, New York and Chicago have Pizza and Louisiana has Gumbo and Jambalaya and not many other regions have their own signature dish? Well virtually all cities in Japan have their own signature dish. Part of this has to do with the tradition in Japanese culture to bring back gifts for friends and family when you go on a trip and those gifts are typically food. As a result, most train stations and gift shops have a huge selection of individually wrapped snacks for your loved ones. Fuji City's signature food is boiled peanuts, I have no idea why.
  7. Light switches are typically horizontal.
  8. Most houses have car ports instead of garages
  9. Cream Soda is not a golden drink in Japan, instead it is actually a melon soda float with vanilla ice cream, and even though melon soda tastes nothing like cream soda (though equally as delicious) the added ice cream makes it taste exactly has the golden variety in the States.
  10. Valentine's day gift giving is reserved solely for females to give the men in their lives as where a separate holiday, White Day on March 14th, is when men give chocolates and what not to their lady friends.
  11. Power outlets have 2 prongs instead of 3.
  12. The entire country of Japan is on a single time zone, even though eastern and western extremes of the country see the sunrise an hour apart.
  13. Trash is burned as there is no where to put it on such a small island.
  14. Very few kids, if any, bring lunch to school.
  15. Handicap access is not mandatory and quite scant.
  16. When you move into a new apartment you have to provide what is called "key money." It's usually one to three months rent you have to pay up front. However, unlike a security deposit, you will never see this money ever again. I personally believe this to be bullshit.
  17. Houses are typically pre-fabricated and modular.
  18. People tend to own small dogs. Popular breeds being Dachshund, Chihuahua and anything else tiny and super cutesy.
  19. Toothpicks are one sided.
  20. Convenience Stores have a "warm drink" section that keeps coffees and hot teas at a great temperature for the winter.
  21. Almost all cars have a GPS unit.
  22. Soda and beer cans have a little dimple under the top of the tab, making opening cans extremely easy.

Goodbye Japan

My year in Japan is over. March 29th, 2010 I arrived in Japan to teach English in Fuji City with little to no expectations or even any real plans other than doing something interesting and different with my life. Exactly one year later, March 29th, 2011, I returned to the US.

My birthday is March 30th, so I spent the entirety of the age 23 living in Japan. 23 was an age for a lot of firsts. It was the first time that I lived by myself, in a foreign country and where I didn't know anyone. My first time with a fulltime job and the longest time I've continuously held a job. I went surfing. I went to underground nightclubs. There was a newspaper article written about me. I experienced the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, whose effects are still being felt almost a month later.

I didn't love Fuji City, but I loved my job. Taking the job as an English teacher was always just a way for me to travel and work abroad, there was never a specific reason for coming to Japan, and when people asked me why I was going I'd say "Why not?" But within a few months of starting work I was honestly surprised at  how much I enjoyed teaching. What's most surprising about this is that I always used to say that I'd never become a teacher, the phrase "over my dead body" came up a lot in regards to the matter, due to all the second-hand experience I received from my mother, an elementary school teacher for the past 30 years.

My taking to the job has everything to do with Japanese culture and the school I taught at. My students were amazing, as were the teachers that I worked with. Japanese students are easier to handle in virtually every way and the relationships that teachers have with students is much closer to that of parents and children, or even friends. Students are left on their own in the classroom multiple times a day, they take initiative to do their work, they rarely ever fight (Through the entire year, I only witnessed a single fight, in middle school. Fights were a weekly, or even daily, occurrence at my own middle school in Miami.) and students would always help out if a peer didn't quite grasp a concept in class.

Looking back, I'm amazed at how much I've done in Japan over the course of the one year. I've seen more of Japan than most Japanese get to in their entire lives. I made more new friends in my single year in Japan than my four years at university, and people from all of the world, not just Japan. I've learned so much of the Japanese language simply from speaking to friends and students (my Japanese is by no means good, I'd say my speaking level is equivalent to that of a 2 year old, at best).

There's no doubt that I'll return to Japan one day, hopefully getting a chance to see all of my friends again and maybe even some students. I'm going to miss a lot of things about Japan: my schools, my friends, Japanese food, the ease of train travel and so much more. But I look forward to what's to come in the US: driving, affordable fruits, my family and my friends.

My first full day back in the United States was my 24th birthday. What I'll be doing from 24 on I'm not really sure. But I'll be sure to keep you updated along the way.

Sorry for the delay in posting a bit of a wrap of, as you can imagine things have been a bit crazy since the earthquake, then I went to China, then I moved back to US. My return had nothing to do with the recent Tohoku earthquake, or the current nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the plan was always to just do one year and I've bought my ticket back to the U.S. in December.

This isn't the end of, I'll be sure to keep posting any traveling I do or any interesting going ons in my life. Until then...

I'm okay.

There was an earthquake here in Japan today, I'm perfectly okay. It wasn't really that bad here in Fuji. Here's an e-mail I sent to my parents explaining what happened and how it was in Fuji.

I'm sure you've heard, there was an earthquake here in Japan. I'm perfectly ok. It was only a 4 here in Fuji. It was actually my very last day teaching at elementary school, I just finished my very last class and was walking around the halls when an announcement came on the P.A. and teachers started ushering kids into the classrooms to take cover under their desks, not saying anything to me. Then the building started swaying. Didn't really feel like more than the sway of a slow dance, only a little faster, not violent at all. For a moment, part of me even thought that it was some ridiculously high tech drill halfway through. The first tremor lasted about 2 minutes. After it stopped, we evacuated to the P.E. field where heads were counted and announcements were made by the vice principle, then announcements from city hall via the city-wide loudspeaker system. We went back inside so kids could gather their things and go home since school had officially been over for 10 minutes. As we did that another tremor hit, a little weaker and only lasting about 30 seconds. We regrouped again outside, some parents were showing up to pick their kids up, and shortly thereafter the teachers led all the kids back home.

Quite the eventful last day, huh?

Japanese Food

Before I came to Japan, all I could think about in terms of "Japanese food" was really just sushi and Benihana.  Since arriving here in March, I've found a huge variety of foods that I never knew existed.  What follows is a selection of my favorites.

When most Americans hear ramen they think Cup Noodle, the cheap, pretty crappy and microwaveable quick meal. But similar to TV dinners, Cup Noodle is just a crappy knock off of the real thing. Ramen is noodles in a broth with a wide variety of ingredients, typically onions and slices of pork, and eating it fresh from a restaurant is absolutely delicious and bowls of it are extremely popular here in Japan. Every city has huge amount of ramen restaurants, which range from hip and modern chains to being sold out out of the back of an old van.  The bowl above a a regional variety originating from Hokkaido, a large northern Japanese island , notable for its use of miso broth. That chunk of butter on top is not a standard topping, but damn was it a good one.

Without a doubt my favorite Japanese food, but this one is the most difficult to describe.  Often called a Japanese pancake or omelet, but it isn't really like either and at the same time somewhere in between.  Basically, it's a mix of cabbage and flour along with anything else you want, then traditionally covered in a special okonomiyaki sauce (which I liken to sweet BBQ sauce), seaweed flakes, and a ton of mayonaise (whatever you may consider to be a lot of mayonaise to put on something that isn't a sandwich, triple it).  Even those standards are often substituted out for something else, making it a food that I think that anyone can enjoy.

Fondue with a lot more ingredients.  Usually shabu-shabu restaurants are an all-you-can-eat fare with a time limit.  You get a lot of raw ingredients such as beef, chicken, pork and vegetables; your choice of broths, which can placed together in a specialized pot (above), and sauces.  You throw in what you want, in the broth you want, dip it in the sauce you want and enjoy. It's fun, easy and simple.

Tonkatsu is breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets, usually served over rice with some egg topping, not much else to it.  Often sold at convenience stores for a quick, cheap meal, but it's best had at dedicated katsu restaurants, where it's delicious and still quite cheap.

Japanese cuisine has a lot of noodles, and Udon is one of mainstays in this category.  White, thick and soft, they can be eaten either hot or cold, but I prefer them hot.  Like ramen, they are good for a quick meal, but  tend to be presented much more simply with few toppings.  The bowl of Udon above was bought at a small train station restaurant counter. Designed with people in a hurry in mind, you order what you want, within 30 seconds your meals is presented to you, you consume it at a small counter standing up, and off you go.

One of the more unique Japanese dishes is takoyaki, or octopus balls.  Simply batter with octopus meat inside that is cooked using a specialized pan (seen above) and topped with the same toppings as Okonomiyaki (special sauce, mayo, seaweed and anything else you'd like). They make great finger food and because of this can always be found at food stalls at Japanese festivals. It's also not uncommon to see specialized takoyaki cooking vans that pop up late into the evening around busy night life areas all over Japan. Photo credit: Loozrboy

Like shabu-shabu, nabe is a hot pot, but unlike shabu-shabu, nabe is a slow cooking meal.  Meant for cold winters during which your dinner party huddles around the burner and your meals comes in due time as you bond.  You are essentially making a large stew, with a wide array of vegetables, meats and other nice foods. Here we have cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, chicken balls, Korean kimchi (pickled/fermented cabbage) all in a miso broth.

If I had to pin down one food as "Japanese Fast Food" this would be it, despite the fact that the Japanese love McDonald's. Gyudon means "beef over rice" and it is just that. Of all the meals listed here, this is the cheapest. In the summer the gyudon chain restaurants go on a price war, seeing who can lay claim on the cheapest bowl in Japan, prices can drop to the mid-200 yen range and lines start stretching out the door. This dish isn't for everyone, the quality of meat they use isn't the best, but I really enjoy the mix of beef and onions, especially the varieties with cheese. Above you can see the 3-cheese gyudon from the Sukiya chain.

Every traditional style Japanese meal you have will come with tsukemono, which are tasty pickled vegetables. Not just cucumbers get pickled, but radish, turnips, ginger, onion and probably whatever else is laying around. If you like western style pickled cucumbers, you'll enjoy these. Photo credit: Jose Wolff

Another extremely common side dish, miso soup. I don't love nor hate miso soup, but I do get tired of it from time to time. Photo credit: mroach

Made from buckwheat flour, soba is a noodle that can be on both the cheap and gourmet sides of the spectrum. Making soba is often done with great care by someone who has been in the craft for decades, or at least learned from someone that was. I has a subtle taste and really shows how the Japanese take pride in perfecting their craft, no matter what it may be. Photo credit: avlxyz

Despite the name, yakisoba is not made from buckwheat soba noodles. They are fairly typical noodles, but are fried, similar to lo mein. It definitely one of my favorites and can always be found at Japanese festivals. It is also the only one of these dishes that is so easy to make I can do it in my own, tiny, crippled kitchen. Photo credit: Jeremy Keith

These fermented beans are without a doubt the most controversial of all Japanese foods. Most Japanese people love them and most foreigners don't, and those that don't find it completely revolting. It has an extremely strong taste and an equally strong smell that even the fans will tell you is a bit offensive. When I first arrived in the country, I was often asked by my new co-workers if I had tried it yet, so when the opportunity came during school lunch to try it I went for it.

It's pretty disgusting, gag inducing disgusting, and not something I'd recommend anyone eat. There are plenty of people that really enjoy it, but I'm just not one of them, but it is absolutely something that everyone should try when in Japan (honestly!). The Japanese recognize that most people find it revolting and praise anyone that gives it a shot, just be sure to have something to get the taste out of your mouth handy in case you have the same reaction that I did. Photo credit: Tom Magliery

Almost all of the foods above have restaurants that exclusively serve different varieties of the dish, except maybe natto, tsukemono and miso soup. So, if there's ever an urge for any of them, I know exactly where to go. Now, a lot these are not a part your typical Japanese meal, just as hamburgers and BBQ aren't in America. Typical meals more often than not include some variation of white rice, fish and miso soup, sometimes even for all three meals of the day.  A fairly healthy choice, there's no doubt that the Japanese diet is one of the contributing factors to the country's overall life expectancy of 82.6 years, the highest in the world.

Bicycle Life in Japan

Riding bike to work in the rain or severe cold will always be the worst day of your life. Bike riding is an essential way of getting around in Japan, and it's no different for me.  Since I don't have a car here, I have to bike anywhere I need to go; for work, shopping, going to a friends house, going to the post office, etc.  It's something I probably wasn't really prepared, I never so much as got out of the neighborhood back in elementary school.  I'm sure that by year's end, I'll have ridden further than I had in all my prior years combined.

Let's do the math.  I teach at two elementary schools and a junior high, the elementary schools I work at are 4.6 and 2.8 kilometer bike rides away from my apartment, while my junior high is 3.2.  Combining all of the roundtrip distances for the school year, I will travel 1,312km, or 815.24 miles, by March 2011.  That's more than the distance from Atlanta, Georgia to Dallas, Texas, and this is just to go to work, not including when I got anywhere else.

And I'm not the exception.  If you go to any train station in town, there are little to no parking spaces for cars, but ample space for bikes.  At the big one in town, Fuji Station, there's two-level bicycle parking as well as underground parking with an automatic conveyer belt for taking your bike up the stairs and 24 hour security, it's spectacular.

I'm sure that my commute is far huge compared to a lot of peoples' around the world, but it's part of good evidence on the differences between Miami's huge reliance on driving and Japan's on bicycles and public transportation.

20 More Differences and 3 Similarities Between Japan and the USA

It's becoming harder and harder to discover subtle differences between Japan and America, both because I've likely found almost all of them and I've been here long enough that everything Japan throws at me now seems normal.  But this time I've found 20 more!  So let's get to it:
  1. There is zero tipping in Japan and it can even be considered rude to attempt to.  I'm told that in certain circumstances you can tip taxi drivers, but I haven't paid tip since the moment I stepped foot here.
  2. Soda just is not popular.  Yes,  there is Coca-Cola and some of the other big names, but it just isn't nearly as popular.  In the States there are entire aisles devoted to all the different flavors, but here attention is shifted towards teas, coffees and juices.
  3. Shoe sizes rarely go larger than 28cm, that's a size 10/10.5 in American at stores, they just don't carry things larger.  Unfortunately for me, I'm a size 11, 29 cm.  When I went looking for shoes, it took me a good month or two of looking before I found a single pair of red Converse Chuck Taylor's, the only pair of size 29cm shoes I found anywhere in Fuji City.
  4. The drinking, smoking and voting age in Japan is 20.  The driving age for a standard car is 18, but for a motorcycle, moped and "small special car" it's 16.
  5. The U.S.A. is always called simply "America" (or "Amerika" in the proper Japanese spelling), not a translation of "The United States of America."
  6. Gas stations are called gas stands.
  7. Denny's is just not the same.  The breakfast menu you may know and love is only a single page, with more Japanese style dishes involving rice are more prevalent.
  8. In school, notebooks have two rings.
  9. The major expressway in Japan, the Tomei, is damn expensive.  To go from Tokyo to Nagoya (358km/223 miles), it costs ¥10,000, roughly $100.  As where a similar journey on the Florida Turnpike would cost you less than $20.  However, on weekends, if you have an ETC card, an electronic device installed in your car to automatically pay tolls, you can drive unlimited on the Tomei for only ¥1,000, about $10.
  10. Facebook is not nearly as popular.  Mixi is Japan's leading social networking service with 80% market share and over 17 million users.
  11. Lost hasn't finished yet.
  12. Students often go to school on Saturdays mornings.
  13. Your familiar tally marks are not used in Japan.

    Western vs Japanese tallies

    The process goes like this: Japanese tallies

  14. The emergency telephone number is 1-1-o for the police and 1-1-9 medical or fire, rather than 9-1-1.
  15. Comb-overs are referred to as barcodes
  16. Snow-men are done with 2 snow balls instead of 3.  This fact especially boggles my students.

  17. I'm told most everyone peels their grapes before eating them.
  18. As with a lot of other Asian countries, almost all cars are parked rear-end in first.
  19. Baseball games and most concerts don't run too late so that the audience members are still able to catch their last trains home.
  20. Maps typically show Japan as being in the center, instead of the Prime Meridian.

To mix things up I've also come up with some interesting similarities, unfortunately I could only think of:

  1. Starbucks is exactly the same, from the music to the interior decoration.
  2. Converse Chuck Taylor shoes are popular.
  3. Teenage girls still love Justin Beiber and they often try to talk to me about him during lunch for whatever reason.

If you'd like to check out my prior lists of differences between the USA and Japan you can find them here and here.

Autumn Has Arrived in Tokyo

Today, Tuesday November 23rd, was a public holiday in Japan (Labor Day according to my work calendar), so I took the day off to go to a flea market in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.  While the flea market was big, neat and had tons of great stuff, I actually spent a lot more of my time walking around the park and enjoying the changing leaves.  So without anymore exposition, here are the pictures I took during that walk.

Tree tops, a green sandwich.

Through the trees

The ground through a lot of areas of the park was covered in a blanket of gold leaves.

A little girl exploring the park.

Saving some for later.

Christmas Colonel

In Japan you don't have to wait until after Thanksgiving to put up the Christmas decorations, mostly because there is no Thanksgiving.  Japanese people actually don't even celebrate Christmas, being at least 84% Shinto or Buddhist.  But despite this, and in no small part due to globalization, Christmas decorations are still fairly present in Japan.  The same can be said for Halloween decorations, despite no trick or treating taking place.

There is one Japanese tradition that has recently sprung up for Christmas here in Japan.  Every Christmas Eve tons of people flock to KFC for its "Christmas Eve Dinner."  It's become the thing to do on Christmas Eve.

I should also note that Colonel Sanders is in front of virtually every KFC in the country, and is dressed up from time to time for various reasons.