Although my experience of living in rural Japan for a year and a half turned out to be an incredibly dull one, I have to admit the country still has a lot going for it. I might not care so much about these things right now as I’m still living here, but I know months down the road I’ll better appreciate what the country has provided for me.
Without further ado, here are the top ten things I’m going to miss about Japan when I leave here for good next January.
1. An Abundance of Second-hand Shops
I’ve never been to a country that puts so much effort into recycling and reusing merchandise as Japan. No matter what it is you’re looking for – from name brand clothes to designer handbags to electronics to musical instruments – chances are you can find it at a “reuse shop” in Japan. They truly have something for everyone.
Being a tech junkie, I instantly fell in love the very first time I set foot into a Hard-off (Japan’s most prominent and ubiquitous reuse shop franchise). I was surrounded by bin after bin of used computer parts, vintage cameras, lenses, and accessories, as well as retro video games from my childhood. While lots of these things are nothing more than useless junk and labeled as such, just as many are things that a tech scavenger like me could repair and put to use for practically no cost. I can think of no better time than now to use the cliché proverb “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Here are a few of my most memorable reuse shop treasure finds: a super gaming computer worth about $800 for only $75, a 24” HD LCD monitor worth about $150 for only $3, a Nikon macro lens worth about $200 for only $5, and a Pentax lens adapter worth about $70 for only $1.
Not a week goes by that I don’t step foot into a reuse shop at least once. America’s thrift stores, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, got nothing on Japan’s Hard-off or WonderREX. These places are becoming so popular that I’m starting to see new branches and franchises pop up all over Kanto month after month. It’s not hard to see why!
2. Peace and Order
Developing countries like China and Thailand can really be an assault on one’s senses. While some of these assaults are fascinating and addicting, such as exotic flavors and gorgeous women, other ones grow old in a hurry. I think it’s mostly the lack of respect for calm and order in these countries that bothers me the most. Doing simple things like going for a walk or trying to get some sleep become unpleasant chores, as there’s no way one can fully escape the madness.
But in Japan, I need not worry, as the Japanese are some of the most quiet-obsessed people in all of Asia (or even the world). Late at night and early in the morning, I rarely hear a peep. Public trains, buses, and subways are filled with people, yet I can hear myself breathing. Tokyo is one of the largest metropolises in the world, yet many of its streets remain eerily quiet. People obnoxiously talking on their cell phones or in large groups in public are few and far between.
Of course not all of Japan is so peaceful, but I can safely say it’s the quietest country I’ve ever been to in Asia. People are actually considerate here, and for that I am thankful. When I go back to developing Asia next year, I unfortunately go back to getting my ear drums (and my stress levels) continually assaulted.
3. A Safe, Non-threatening Atmosphere
One thing I often heard about Japan prior to my arrival here was that people are incredibly honest when it comes to day-to-day transactions and personal property. You could leave a wallet full of cash on the ground right in the middle of a busy sidewalk in Tokyo, and it would probably still be there untouched 24 hours later.
Over in China that wallet would disappear in seconds, and in Thailand it would probably only be a matter of minutes or hours. In fact in China I’m constantly mindful of thieves. Let your guard down even for a moment, and don’t be surprised if you lose something in the blink of an eye. Always having to be on guard against scumbags gets very tiring.
The Japanese are also incredibly honest when it comes to paying for things. They even count your change in front of you 90% of the time. Yet in both China and Thailand, people are always ready to pounce on the unsuspecting foreigner. Dual-pricing and getting shortchanged are just an everyday fact of life, especially for anyone with a white face.
And finally, unlike America, physical violence is incredibly rare in Japan. Hell, you won’t even see people arguing in public, let alone fist fighting. I’m convinced that the only way a foreigner is going to experience physical violence in Japan is via the hands of another foreigner. If a Japanese attacks you, then you definitely must’ve been asking for it!
Japanese people simply don’t mess with strangers just for the sake of it, as the preservation of “wa” (social peace and harmony) is of utmost importance. Life in Japan is fairly predictable and routine, which means I can relax and let my guard down. It’s not a country full of hustlers and sharks.
4. A Spotlessly Clean Environment
While “grit” or “rough around the edges” can be positive things that add to the appeal of a country, litter and garbage are never good things. And fortunately Japan is a country where people actually respect and take care of the environment. It’s ironic that people in countries like China and Thailand can get so nationalistic about their homelands, yet they treat their country’s environment like a wastebasket.
With very few exceptions, no matter where you go in Japan, the environment is always presentable. Going to public places like restaurants, stores, and restrooms, you can almost always see someone cleaning. That’s because many places have a cleaning quota schedule that’s actually rigorously adhered to, unlike in many of Japan’s neighboring countries.
Clean air, clean land, clean water, clean cities, clean indoors, and clean outdoors – how could those not be good things? Very few other Asian countries can check all those the way Japan can. I gotta give credit where credit’s due.
Next year in Southeast Asia, I’m back to seeing trash, cockroaches, and rats on every sidewalk. Sigh.
5. First-world Luxuries
Japan offers the Western expat many of the same comforts we took for granted back home. Drinkable tap water, mostly clean air in the cities, cleanly-cooked food free of, vast online shopping, reliable and punctual public transportation, an efficient postal system, sturdy infrastructure, no tangible corruption, and so on.
Yet when living in countries like China and Thailand, one often has to prepare for the worst and expect the unexpected in just about every situation and facet of life. For example, I wouldn’t even bother trying to mail a package internationally from China or Thailand, as a million different bad scenarios might happen. Someone might steal from the package, it might be handled poorly resulting in damage, it might get stuck in customs for some unknown reason, or might just flat out disappear. Why even try in the first place?
But over in developed Japan, that package will probably make it to its destination just fine. The Japanese are actually capable of getting work done, so I can put my faith in them, and that’s just great.
6. The Changing of the Seasons
Living in Asia for so long, one of the things I deeply miss about Arkansas is its four distinct seasons. Northeast China really only had two seasons as far as I’m concerned – super cold and relatively warm – and Thailand also only had two – very hot and dry and very hot and wet.
But Japan actually comes close to having the Arkansas seasons I remember growing up with – a warm and sunny spring, a hot and humid summer, a cool and colorful autumn, and a cold and dry winter.
But it’s definitely not the weather I’m gonna miss from Japan, rather it’s the seasonal spirit and the unique things that take place each and every season. The rice crops growing in the spring and summer, the matsuri (festivals) in the summer and autumn, the colorful leaves on every tree and the persimmon growing in the autumn, the summer special drinks and meals available at so many restaurants and supermarkets, and the seasonal variations of sweets like mochi and yokan. The sakura (cherry blossoms in March and April. There are just too many things to all list here.
Japan may not have the year-round tropical weather that I grew to love in Thailand, but at least I know I have something different to look forward to every time the season changes. These changes add some spice to our lives.
7. A Nation Built for Pedestrians and Bicycles
Finally for once in my life I got to experience a nation that actually considers pedestrians and bike riders a priority. So much of Asia treats these groups of people like dirt, so it’s nice to experience the opposite for a change.
In many Asian countries, sidewalks are for anyone but pedestrians. Motorcycles and e-bikes treat them like an extra traffic lane, vehicles treat them as a parking space, food carts and street vendors set up shop on them, and stray animals sleep on them. But none of these things are an issue in most of Japan, where sidewalks are kept clean and clear. And crosswalks and pedestrian stop lights actually mean something in Japan. Cross the street at a stoplight and cars will actually stop for you. Amazing!
And try riding a bicycle in China or Thailand and see how you’re treated. Your peers will look down at you like you’re a low-class peasant, cars will play chicken with you, your lungs will get filled with smog, or you might even hit a bump or a pothole on the poorly maintained “bicycle lane” and get a flat tire.
Yet in Japan, except for perhaps the most rural of areas, getting around by bike is safe, pleasant, cost-efficient, and respectable. So much in fact that it’s completely normal to see young gorgeous women also getting around on bikes. Think you’d ever see that in China or Thailand? Not in a million years!
8. The Japanese Restroom Experience
It may seem odd for toilets to make it on a list like this, but Japanese toilets are very much worthy of the honor.
In most countries, going to the restroom in a public place is about as much fun as going to the dentist. It’s not a very pleasant experience, but you can’t avoid it forever. Yet in Japan, going to a public restroom is a pleasant and relaxing experience that I never pass up.
Toilets here are equipped with all kinds of special functions – a seat warmer, a deodorizer, a flushing sound imitator, and last but not least – an anus sprayer. That sounds disgusting, but it’s one the things I’ll miss the most when I leave. Going back to scrapping rough and dry toilet paper across my butt crack almost seems barbaric in comparison.
But the fun doesn’t end there. In many Japanese restrooms, toilet stall doors go all the way down to the floor, giving you complete privacy. No one can see your dropped trousers resting around your ankles. Foam soap and a high-power hand dryer are also fairly ubiquitous. And did I mention that Japanese restrooms are usually spotlessly clean?
In China I leave the restroom feeling nauseous and shell-shocked. Yet in Japan I leave the restroom feeling refreshed and reborn. Why the rest of the world still hasn’t taken note from the greatness of Japanese restrooms, I don’t know.
9. Reliable, High-speed Internet
Maybe this one really belongs in number five, but I think it’s well worthy of its own number. Finally for the first time during my living in Asia experience I got to experience fast, uncensored, and unfiltered high-speed internet. I guess the third time really is a charm.
China is hands-down home to the worst internet I’ve ever experienced in my life. Nothing else needs to be said. Thai internet on the other hand wasn’t too bad, but there was still some censoring going on, and rarely did I ever come across a consistently fast and reliable connection. Speeds were all over the place – fast one minute, yet sluggishly slow the next.
Yet over here in Japan, my connection has been 99% consistent and fast. Whether it be downloading or uploading, I can depend on things to get done quickly and smoothly. Yet over in China and Thailand, I likely would’ve been pulling my hair out just to accomplish a simple task, like say uploading a large photo to social media.
No government telling me what I can and can’t look at, no more endlessly buffering YouTube videos, and no more frequent dropped connections. +1 for Japan!
10. Japanese Sweets
While I felt the Japanese food scene left a lot to be desired, the one place it actually shined was in its sweets.
I’ve had an insatiable sweet tooth for as long as I can remember. Growing up in the US, I was hooked to the American classics – apple pie, keylime pie, New York style cheesecake, peach cobbler, and devil’s food cake. When I first moved to China all those years ago, that sweet tooth stayed with me. I couldn’t get enough of Chinese hawthorn candy, fried mantou, and tanghulu. Same in Thailand, where not a day went by that I didn’t enjoy some coconut sweets like khanom chan or khanom tom.
And I’m proud to say that Japan has kept the sweets tradition alive in my heart, as it has plenty to offer suckers for sweets like me. Dango, manju, mochi, yatsuhashi, wagashi, matcha ice cream, and so on. This list could go on forever. The sad thing is, most of these sweets are very hard to find outside Japan, so I’m really gonna miss them. I guess that means I’m gonna have to binge eat them for the next couple of months to tide me over ‘til the next time I’m in Japan.
Japan truly is a unique country that’s hard to compare to other countries. Japan is Japan. And in many ways, Japan is far ahead of its neighbors, whom for whatever reason have taken much longer to develop, modernize, and mature. For that, Japan deserves a round of applause.
Japan is one of the most recognized countries in the world, and in many ways it deserves to be. When I leave the country for greener pastures next year, I’m certainly leaving a lot of comfort and good things behind. In fact it’s the little things that I’m really going to miss the most.
But Japan is far from a perfect country, and for me its downsides ultimately won the battle over its upsides. Because of this, I’ve decided to the leave the country much earlier than I had originally anticipated. Watch out for my next article, 15 Things I Won’t Miss about Japan When I’m Gone, in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading.