Interview with My Brother: A Newbie in Japan

I’ve been living in Asia for seven years now, and only twice have I ever had a family member from back in the States come to visit me here. The first was an epic disaster, but this last time was a totally different story. My older brother, who’s from Arkansas but has been living in the Chicago suburbs for the last half decade, came to stay with me here in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture for three weeks during June and July. Though it was not his first time to leave the US, it was his first time to ever leave the Western hemisphere. So what did he think of Japan, his first Asian country to visit, after seeing rural Ibaraki prefecture, scenic Mount Fuji, and the megatropilis of Tokyo?

Sometimes us long-term expats start to acclimatize so much to our surroundings that we often forget about the little things that are different about our new adopted homelands. Without a frequent change of scenery, we can’t help but take some of these things for granted. So what things did a “fresh off the boat” (or rather plane) newbie notice when he touched down in Asia? Read my interview with my older brother below to find out which aspects of Japan were fascinating, which were disappointing, which were surprising, and every little detail in between. (Ness in bold font and my brother in regular font):

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

So you left Japan one week ago, and now you’re probably adjusted to be being back home in America. You’ve had time to contemplate and think over your three-week trip here in Japan. Let’s start this interview by talking about the ladies. How would you rate the overall level of attraction of Japanese women, particularly in comparison to the women you see in the United States?

Surprisingly, I thought they were very attractive. They have a very good sense of style, especially when compared with American women. I’m actually starting to think that American women have the absolute worst sense of style. You could even say the same for American men. I saw lots of short skirts and long, slender legs in Japan. Most girls were very fit, too.

I assumed that the whole pale skin thing would be a turn off, but I actually found it attractive in person. I wouldn’t say there were that many attractive girls out where you live in Ibaraki, but in Tokyo it felt like almost every girl I saw was hot.

Regarding the American sense of style, I always notice how badly people are dressed every time I go back home, especially the people in Arkansas. Lots of people wearing gym shorts and yoga pants, guys wearing shirts three sizes too large, and people just dressed overly casually in almost every situation, even when they probably shouldn’t be.

Americans tend to dress real dorky and don’t seem to be very self-aware. But if you’re an American who actually cares about his style, that puts you ahead of 95% of the crowd.

And when it comes to women’s skin color, I’m also not really that picky. But I think the truth is that Asian women tend to look better with lighter skin tones. Skin color usually goes hand-in-hand with their social class as well. The entire continent of Asia seems to agree with me.

I definitely found Japanese girls’ super light-colored skin to be attractive. I never noticed this prior to going to Japan.

Young Japanese Woman at a Pool Bar

You set out to meet Japanese women during your three weeks here. Your main avenue for finding them was through Tinder, the online dating app. What kind of vibes were you getting from the women? How do you feel you were treated as an American guy in their country?

Surprisingly, they were pretty indifferent to the fact that I’m American. No one was impressed that I’m American, nor did being American win me any bonus points. You hear that Asian women tend to be into foreigners, especially white guys, but that wasn’t the case for me in Japan, which kind of sucked. Maybe that’s just my ego, but that’s what you often hear.

I didn’t get many matches on Tinder out in Ibaraki, but once I got to Tokyo, I had a ton. Over the five-day period I was in Tokyo, I’d say I had 30+ matches. But the girls I was matching with were not responsive at all. I couldn’t tell if that was due to a language barrier or what. But using Tinder in Japan was definitely better than using it in America. I don’t think it can get any worse than using it in America. It’s dead and worthless here now. There are so many people on it now that you just can’t get through.

That said, using Tinder in Japan still wasn’t all that great. It was hard to get with any girl above a 6 or a 7. Some girls would talk on the app, but then flake very quickly or just completely disappear. I did manage to meet with one girl in Tokyo, though.

Beyond all the online crap, what was your impression of Japanese women’s character, particularly face-to-face?

I liked them. They all had kinda bubbly, friendly personalities. I never really got that sense of bitchiness that I get from American women. I don’t know if it was just because I was a tourist in their country, but all of the Japanese girls I met were overly nice to me. They were fun to talk to, interesting, friendly, and cute.

Waitress at Hooters in Shibuya

What percentage of the women that you saw in Japan would you describe as “doable”? Of course only taking into account the ones in the appropriate age range.

Out there in Ibaraki, I would say the percentage is roughly the same as over here in the Chicago suburbs. I saw a lot of 6s there, and maybe a few 7s. I don’t remember seeing any 10s at all. But I was seeing 8s, 9s, and 10s everywhere in Tokyo.

I felt like I saw way more young people in Tokyo, too. Out there in Ibaraki, I saw lots of old people, but it seemed like everyone in Tokyo was in their twenties or thirties. 75% or more of the women in Tokyo were doable in my eyes.

I would sit and people watch for hours in Tokyo, because there were so many hot girls, and I never got tired of looking at them. It was also fun observing all the unusual habits of Japanese people.

Middle-aged Japanese Woman in Ibaraki

What kind of vibes were you getting from the locals? Not just women, but all Japanese people?

The general stranger seemed kinda “fake-friendly.” They were so overly nice and polite that they just came off as completely fake and like they had no intentions to make themselves believable. People just seemed like they were locked into their own world and into their own head. They didn’t really seem that interested in other people. Yet when I would meet and talk to people on a personal level, they usually seemed genuinely nice and friendly.

How would you rate the average level of English among the Japanese?

Incredibly poor. Shocking. I’d say 95% of people were untalkable. You just could not communicate with them. This of course made everything difficult. If it wasn’t for the language barrier, I would’ve tried hitting on more women and talking to more locals.

The people who actually did speak English spoke it very poorly for the most part. Two of the girls I met spoke the best English among all of the people I met in Japan (both had previously lived in the US), and yet we still had lots of moments where we couldn’t understand one another.

I’d imagine the level of English in Japan has to be among the worst in the world. It was very bad.

You’re right. Japan probably has the overall worst level of English of any Asian country I’ve been to.

Back when you were still here, you made a comment about how Ibaraki, the prefecture where I live, looks like it’s still stuck in the 1980s. Can you elaborate more about that?

Factories in Kamisu

As soon as I got back home in the States, a friend asked me: “so Japan is like the technological center of the world, huh?” And I had to give him a firm no as a reply. That really surprised me. You always imagine Japan as a technologically advanced country, and maybe it was back in the 80s and 90s, but it doesn’t seem that way anymore.

For example, the ATMs had green text and giant number keys. You would have to go somewhere out in the American boondocks to find an ATM like that because they just don’t exist anymore for the most part. All the public technology I saw in Japan seemed like it was from the 1980s, and that just really surprised me. You said to me that Japan had their “big boom” in the 80s and 90s, and that they’ve never moved on since then. I agree.

All I can say is that so many of the other Asian cities I’ve been to and have lived in seem far more progressive than the cities in Japan.

But isn’t that shocking? Why do you think that is?

Japan is an aging country with an ever-growing class of senior citizens. Many of whom are stubborn and very stuck in their old ways. Nor is the country very open to foreign ideas and concepts. And Japan’s economy now is nothing compared to what it used to be. I also think that many Japanese have a deep-rooted superiority complex, though they’re very subtle about it. On a personal level, people don’t really act arrogant, especially in a direct way, but on a societal level, Japan is very arrogant. They believe in their hearts that they’re the best, and that the Japanese way of doing something is the only correct way, but they’ll almost never say it out loud. Anyways, I could go on forever about this topic.

Phone Booth in Kamisu

But basically you thought that the technology in Japan was a step backwards compared to what you’re used to, correct?

Absolutely! No doubt about it. You could come from a little hick town in the US and then go to Japan and wonder why the technology is so backwards. It’s very obvious.

However, if there’s one technology they have that’s superior, it’s their automatic toilets. Those are awesome! I already miss those.

Haha, you’re right! It’ll be hard to go without one the day I leave Japan for good. What about the 4G cellular service in Japan? How did it compare?

I had two SIM cards. The first one (IIJmio – NTT DoCoMo) worked just fine. I don’t really have any complaints. The second one (a SIM card for tourists) was pretty useless, though.

Any other memorable technology in Japan?

I like the idea of vending machines everywhere. It’s a bit silly, but the idea that you can just walk out your door and get a drink is pretty convenient.

Next topic. What’s your overall impression of Japanese food? Good? Not good? Somewhere in between?

While I was there in Japan, we had a running joke that my favorite foods were always the ones from non-Japanese restaurants – Indian, Chinese, etc. But I don’t think Japanese food was bad, rather it was just kinda mediocre. Every meal was about a seven out of ten – good, solid, but never blew my mind. The food did get pretty old, too. A lot of ramen.

Ramen Served at a Fast Food Restaurant in Hokota

We ate at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, several ramen restaurants, a grill-it-yourself BBQ restaurant, several “famiresus,” a few foreign restaurants, as well as some others.

I’ve never really been a sushi fan. I felt like the sushi I had in Japan tastes the same as the sushi I’ve had here in America. I wasn’t too impressed with the BBQ restaurant either. Japanese cuisine is considered a delicacy, but after going to Japan, I’m not really too sure why. It’s just too mediocre to me.

They also don’t use too many things to add flavor. They don’t use many spices. The portions are small. Everything is a bit too plain to be great. I’d eat Japanese food again, but I think I’d get tired of it if I lived there.

I also think Japanese cuisine is very plain. Nothing is really bad, but nothing ever blows you away either. And I fully agree with you about portions being too small. It’s the same in Thailand, but food is like one half to one fifth the price there. How did you feel about the value of Japanese food? Do you think the price you paid was reasonable considering what you got?

I think it was comparable to the US, perhaps a bit higher. Sometimes I’d go into a restaurant very hungry, and I’d have to buy three entrées in order to fill myself up. And each entrée was like 600 or 700 yen apiece. But most meals I spent about 1,000 yen.

Dining out did feel expensive in Japan. I don’t think it’s something I could regularly do if I lived there. But it didn’t feel astronomically expensive either.

Plate of Sushi at Kura Sushi Restaurant

What were your favorite Japanese foods?

Though it got old, the ramen was very good. I couldn’t eat ramen every day. But I never see ramen places like the ones in Japan around here in the US, so I think I’ll miss those places eventually.

Were there any Japanese foods you hated that you would never eat again?

You made me try kimchi, which is actually Korean, and it was very off-putting. I also don’t recommend people go to Denny’s in Japan. The breakfast they served there was probably the worst breakfast I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t want one egg, a tiny sausage, and a big ass salad for breakfast. Now that I think about it, I guess there weren’t any actual Japanese foods I hated.

What was your favorite restaurant that you ate at in Japan, either Japanese or foreign?

Probably an Indian restaurant there in Ibaraki, though the Indian and Chinese restaurants were neck and neck. The single best meal I had was mapo tofu served at a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. That meal blew my mind!

Lunch Served at a Chinese Restaurant in Tokyo

Mapo tofu is a favorite Chinese dish among the Japanese. It’s served at almost every Chinese restaurant here.

That was one of the dishes I had there that I can’t quite understand why it’s not more popular here in the US. I probably ate it eight or nine times while I was there. I’m gonna learn how to make it myself. It was extremely good!

Sounds like you’d probably love Sichuanese Chinese food then.

While you were here, you were commenting a lot on the meats available at the supermarket. Can you comment more about them?

The meat is immaculate there for some reason! In American supermarkets, I can spend five to ten minutes looking for a perfect cut of meat – one with the correct amount of fat, one that’s the right size, etc. Sometimes I’ll go and never find a perfect cut, and I have to just leave with the best I can find. Yet in Japan every single cut of meat was beautiful. I would just stare in awe at the meat for several minutes. Every cut of meat in Japan was better than the best cuts I see here in the US.

People say that American farm animals are pumped full of hormones and steroids, and now I think that’s got to be true. American meats have so little fat and seem oversized, whereas the ones in Japan seemed perfectly proportioned and with just the right amount of fat. And every meat I bought at the supermarket turned out to be so delicious. I’m jealous that you have that available to you there.

Quality is a big deal here, especially when it comes to meats and seafood. Beyond the meats, what was your impression of Japanese supermarkets?

I’d say I didn’t recognize 75% of the items that I saw available for sale. Shopping was very mysterious. I never even knew what to buy. There was an awesome beer selection, though.

Now let’s talk about the weather. How was the weather during your three weeks here in June?

I didn’t think it was as bad as you made it out to be. About half the days it was cloudy, some days it was rainy, and then others it was sunny. Almost tropical in a way. Like what you’d expect on a beach. The worst thing was probably the humidity – it was very humid the whole time I was there.

The Small Town of Itako in Ibaraki Prefecture

You were here during June, which I think is one of the best months to be here weather-wise, though it is very humid.

For the next topic – you were commenting a lot about the cars here. How would you describe the Japanese taste in cars?

I think they 100% concentrate on practicality and economic value. Fuel economy was probably the biggest deciding factor. They didn’t seem to care too much about style. Every vehicle was basically white and a big box. No excess. No flash. Just enough to get the job done, and that’s it. A motorized box that gets you from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible.

But I’m definitely not bashing them for it. Everyone in America is obsessed with their car and buying a car that everyone likes. Cars represent your status. I wish Americans would be more like the Japanese in this sense. Now I think Americans are a bit silly with their car obsession.

I’m sure you also noticed how small cars tend to be here in Japan, especially when compared to the giant SUVs and trucks so many Americans drive. Cars can also be quite dorky out here in Ibaraki and the rest of rural Japan, though there are certainly more flashy cars in big cities like Tokyo.

I’d say I saw more expensive cars beyond Ibaraki, though I’m not sure I’d call them flashy. Even the expensive cars like BMWs were usually just plain and white. I remember seeing a Nissan Skyline somewhere near Mount Fuji, but even it was just plain white. It’s an awesome car otherwise.

What did you think of the shopping available to you here in Japan? Any absolute bargains or absolute rip-offs?

I honestly didn’t go to Japan to shop, so I didn’t pay that much attention to most stores. But if you like electronics, and you don’t mind buying used products, then the secondhand stores are a must-visit. It’s mind-blowing how many amazing deals you can find in them. In Tokyo the shopping seemed limitless. You could probably find anything you want as long as you put your heart to finding it. Endless amount of stores.

WonderRex - A Franchise of Secondhand Items Shops

You spent five days in Tokyo. What did you think of Tokyo as a city, particularly in comparison to other cities you’ve traveled to?

I’ve only been to five countries (the US, Ireland, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Japan), but I would say Tokyo is undeniably the best city I’ve ever been to. It was somewhat similar to New York City – the energy, the crazy amount of people everywhere, etc. Though Tokyo seemed like it had even more stuff to do than in NYC.

If you’re a person like me who enjoys nightlife and just going out at night, it seems like you’d never run out of options in Tokyo. I could spend years there and probably not get bored.

What was your favorite place in Tokyo?

Shinjuku. It was such a fascinating place, and it was fun to people watch there. I asked a Tinder date to take me to the more local places that tourists wouldn’t normally go to, and she took me to some bars in the middle of Shinjuku. I was just blown away at how cool some of the bars were there. They were stylish and different than any bars I had previously been to. And there were just so many options. If I were to go back to Japan someday, I’d definitely wanna go back to Shinjuku.

Shinjuku at Night

Shinjuku is definitely a flashy and vibrant place, especially after the sun goes down. Is there any advice you would give to newbies traveling to Tokyo?

Going back to what we said earlier – don’t expect anybody to speak English. It’s kind of a pain in the ass. I should’ve learned a few basic words and sentences in Japanese before I went there. That’s my biggest regret from the trip.

You also saw Mount Fuji. What was your impression of it?

Mount Fuji is Mount Fuji. It’s a worldwide icon. I knew it was going to be awesome before I got there, and it definitely was awesome once I finally saw it. It was very scenic and pretty. Mount Fuji delivered.

I was more surprised by the surrounding area (Yamanashi prefecture) – how green it was, the hills, the little towns tucked away between everything. Everything was awesome to look at and very scenic, especially compared to Kamisu, the town you’re living in.

Mount Fuji as Seen from Rural Kawaguchiko

I was personally very impressed by Lake Yamanaka and Lake Kawaguchi, the lakes surrounding Mount Fuji.

Yeah, those lakes were super blue-green, very clean, big, and cold.

Yeah, you swam in Lake Kawaguchi, but I didn’t. Seemed way too cold for a swim.

How would you rate the cost of traveling in Japan? How much would you recommend travelers budget for each day?

If you’ve been to the US, the cost of traveling in Japan is comparable to New York City. You know it’s gonna be high, and it is high. But it honestly wasn’t as expensive as I had expected it to be. I haven’t been to any other Asian countries, where I’ve heard you get a much better value than in Japan, but compared to where I’ve been, I felt the value in Japan was fair.

Excluding accommodation costs, I’d recommend travelers budget about 7,500 yen per day. That amount would grant you quite a bit of freedom in what you could do.

Any final thoughts or anything else you’d like to say about Japan?

I definitely liked it, and I could see myself living there. I had a great trip, and I’d love to go back someday. If you’re someone that’s interested in Japan or Japanese culture, it’s extremely fun. I found everything to be interesting, even where you live in Ibaraki prefecture. Every little detail was always at least a little different than what I’m used to, so that made everything all the more interesting.

The people were a bit awkward, but the ones I got to know I liked a lot. They were friendly. I’m still messaging some of the people I met there while I’m over here in the US. I had a good trip.

Well I’m glad you enjoyed Japan and your first trip to Asia. It’s a rare opportunity to have a family member visit me here, and I also had a blast. As you know, both you and I have big plans for Asia in 2017. Lots of exciting things to look forward to. Anyways, thanks for the interview.

On the Coast in Kamisu

(This interview took place on July 14th, 2016.)