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Archive for March, 2017

10 Things I Will Miss About Japan

Posted by Heliocentrism on March 30, 2017

  1. Conveyor Belt Sushi

They come in both the expensive and inexpensive varieties. Mark and I mainly stick to the more economical kaiten sushi places like, Hamazushi, Sushi Meijin, or Sushi Ro. They charge 100 yen (1USD) for a plate of sushi with 2 pieces of regular (or one sumptuous) cuts of sushi or rolls. I usually eat about 4 to 5 plates with a side or dessert. The cheaper restaurants also have special days for discounts. Hamazushi’s sushi plates costs 10 yen less on weekdays. Sushi Meijin gave women 10% off on Tuesdays. Although sushi is the main attraction, they also serve fries, ice cream, cakes, soups, salads, and other dishes.

  1. The Kei Car

It’s like driving half a car. They are not as fast, big, or powerful as regular cars, but they’re also not as expensive. Kei cars burn less gas. It costs less to drive a Kei car on a toll road. Both insurance and taxes for Kei cars are about half that of regular full-sized cars. There are also more parking spots around town for these smaller vehicles.

My first Kei car cost about $1,500. That price included all the taxes and both mandatory and optional insurance for a year. It didn’t have much power though. I would have to turn off the air conditioner when going uphill with more than two people in the car.

My second Kei was newer, cost about $2,500, and had a turbo something. (I don’t know that much about cars.) It had more power than my first Kei car, but it was still not as fast as other regular cars on the toll roads where you can drive faster than 80 kph. But in Japan, there are very few roads where you can drive that fast. The speed limit in and around town is about 50 to 60 kph, so it doesn’t matter that some cars can go 180 kph and mine can’t.

The only real reason to get a regular car over a Kei car, is if you have to drive around with several passengers. Kei cars can fit 2 adults comfortably, 3 adults less comfortably, and 4 adults uncomfortably. Four is the max capacity for most Kei cars. There is one make of Kei with 2 extra jump seats in the hatch-back trunk area. In general, no one ever wants to sit in a jump seat.

This happens so infrequently, we had to take a photo.

  1. Not pumping my own gas in the winter or summer

Self-service gas stations in Japan are not that common. When you find one, they seem a bit gimmicky, like a self-check-out aisle in the supermarket. Some people think that the self-service stations are cheaper, but I think it varies. The full-service place where I get my gas now, is on par with the self-service place I used when I lived in Okayama (and it comes with free stuff when you buy a pre-paid gas card).

In the winter I stay in my heated car as the gas attendant stands out in the cold pumping my gas. While he’s doing that, his co-worker cleans my windshield and mirrors. When I pay, they ask me for any trash I might have in my car that they could dump for me. This is the closest thing to a cleaning my car ever gets.

  1. Apples

Apples in Japan are just more delicious and apple-like. They only have Fuji apples, though.

  1. Calpis

It’s the drink with the funny name that also tastes kind of funny, but in a good way. If you’ve never had Calpis, let me explain the flavor this way:

Imagine you live in a little town or village somewhere. Your community doesn’t have a lot of things that most places in the world have, like pizza, the internet, newspapers, or milk. One day your neighbor, who spent a few weeks out in the world several years ago, sits by the big tree to regale the village with tales of the Outside. Everyone likes his stories so they sit at his feet to hear about ink pens, fax machines, and disco music. But, the most popular yarns are about milk.

“Tell us again about milk!” The townsfolk beg, almost whispering the word “milk” to show reverence. Everyone is fascinated about this white juice that doesn’t come from a fruit. “It feels like drinking something smooth and soft,” your neighbor tells everyone. “I would say it’s creamy, but I come from this milk-deprived village and know nothing about cream or creamy things. So I would say it’s not uncreamy because I know more about things that aren’t creamy.”

You go home and retell your neighbor’s stories to your mother who has never heard the tales before. She works in a lab and she is very curious about this “milk-juice”. She asks you to repeat everything you remember hearing about milk. She asks you, because she refuses to talk directly to the neighbor. She was engaged to him once and he stood her up on the wedding day. He ran off and went to the Outside and she has never spoken to him since.

After retelling your second-hand tales several times, your mom runs to her basement laboratory vowing that she will make this milk herself. After an hour she comes back with white-enough liquid that she added some ice cubes to. You taste it. It’s slightly too sweet, but it tastes like milk to you. You’ve never had milk, but you think this must be it.

That is what Calpis tastes like. It’s wonderful!

Salt, Denim, Sweet Potato, Gold Flakes

  1. Souvenir Ice Cream

I don’t see this as much I would like, but I’ve seen it enough times to look out for it. If you go to a town that is famous for strawberries, you will see someone selling strawberry ice cream. Of course that could just be a coincidence. But Mark and I have been to towns famous for figs and found fig ice cream. We went to an island that harvested salt, and the gift shop sold salt flavored ice cream. It was terrible!

I’ve had denim ice cream, in a denim manufacturing town, sake ice cream near a sake brewery, and asparagus ice cream near a farming village. The denim ice cream was actually ramune flavored but it had denim-blue food coloring and was sold next to The Gap.

Miyoshi is famous for its wine.

  1. Omiyage

In the states when your co-workers or friends go on vacation they will usually bring back souvenirs. They give out t-shirts, key chains, or post cards. When you get one you think, “Great, another refrigerator magnet…” In Japan the souvenirs are little cakes, cookies, or chocolates. They are either molded in the shape of some tourist attraction or have a picture of some attraction on it. Sometimes the omiyage tastes good, sometimes it tastes bad. Either way, it’s gone after two bites. You eat it and thank the person who gave it to you. And for that person, buying the omiyage was very easy. They sell boxes of the stuff at every souvenir shop and all rest stops on the toll roads. One box has anywhere from 10 to 50 little treats, so you don’t have to spend half your vacation wondering, “What should I get Kim from accounting?”

Cola & Soda KitKats

  1. Flavored KitKats

These are great. Even when they are awful, they are great. The best flavor I’ve had was sugar cookie. It had to be baked. The worst one was sweet bean cake flavored. I never found the illusive wasabi flavored ones.

His job is to protect Kobe.

  1. Everyone is so professional

At some point in time, you’ve probably needed someone somewhere to help only to find that they don’t want to. It has nothing to do with you personally. They just don’t care that much about their job and helping you is part of that job they care so little about.

This rarely happens in Japan. So many people in Japan take pride in their job no matter what that job is, whether they hate their job or not. Clerks at 7-Eleven are always well groomed and courteous. Bank tellers are happy to help you understand the Japanese on an ATM. Even full-service gas station attendants, after pumping your gas and cleaning your windows will put their lives on the line to stand out in traffic to stop cars so you can get back on the road.

No matter what question, problem, or complaint I have ever had, and no matter where I go for help, I have always been treated like my needs are very important. The people helping me have always been polite and friendly. This really helps when living in a country where I don’t speak or read the language very well.

  1. Daiso

This is the best dollar store in the world! (Though, it’s not quite a dollar store.) Most things at Daiso cost 100 yen which is roughly 1USD. This is the first place to go if you need kitchen supplies, stationary, and even electronic accessories. You need a cute box, preferably one with a cat’s face? Go to Daiso. Do you want an HDMI cable? Go to Daiso. A bicycle bell? Daiso! The only thing I would not recommend getting from Daiso is food, but only because the unit price makes the food from Daiso more expensive than the same thing at a grocery store. They sell, for example a one serving package of spaghetti at Daiso for 100 yen. At the local grocer’s, spaghetti is sold in 4 serving packs for 200 yen. If you just want to buy a small amount of something like, let’s say, umeboshi to try it. Then go to Daiso. If you like it, buy a bigger package of the stuff from the grocery store.

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Time to Leave Japan

Posted by Heliocentrism on March 22, 2017

Mark at the airport last December

If you asked Mark or me last month what our plans for the next year were, we wouldn’t have been able to tell you. We wanted to leave Japan and travel the world, but we had been offered positions with the Yokohama branch of our company. Yokohama seemed like a fine city. It’s an hour train ride from Tokyo. This would have been a great place for us to live and explore the top half of Japan.

We waited for months for our new contracts and information about where exactly in Yokohama we would be placed. We wondered if we would teach elementary school, junior high, or high school. Would we be at one school, two schools, …thirty? Would we take the train to work or could we walk? Our future was very uncertain.

Our current contract was coming to an end and we needed to make a decision. Our choice was an “Around the World Trip” for a year or to work another year teaching at Japanese public schools. We put up dream destinations and exotic adventures as reasons to go then tried to counter argue for staying with the implied assumptions and maybes of the new Yokohama jobs.

With three weeks left in our current contracts, we made a firm decision to leave Japan. The unknown of the positions in Yokohama were no match for a year-long vacation. We emailed the branch in Yokohama and told them that we had changed our minds. Two days later, the contracts came in the mail. We did not look at them.

So with less than three weeks left in our contracts, we had to prepare to leave Japan, for good. We had to schedule the cancellation of our internet and utilities. Change addresses on credit cards and at banks. And, we almost drowned in massive amounts of paper work.

The hardest part, though, is getting rid of our stuff. I’m writing this on my second to last day of work. We leave Japan in a little over a week. And, even though Mark and I put nine 30-liter bags of clothing in the bin before heading off to work this very morning, there is still way too much stuff in our apartment.

We have already given away or sold some of our things. The bigger items, like our fridge and washing machine we still use, but we have buyers waiting in the wings. They will be taken away right before we leave. I don’t care about most of our things; they are just things. I’m taking my best coffee tumbler, throwing away the rest, and I don’t even care.

But some items we own, I have grown attached to, like our camping gear. We gave them to a friend of ours and his family. I know it sounds silly, but giving our camping stuff to a friend who we know will enjoy camping with them felt a lot better than selling them to some stranger or abandoning them at a dump site.

Last weekend Mark and I did a mock-packing. That’s where we pack our bags with what we think we need, then carry our backpacks around for 10 minutes or so to see how heavy they are. I had to pack and repack several times to lighten the load. I still need to get rid of more stuff.

At the start of the mock-packing, Mark was sure he didn’t “have that many clothes.” But after putting all the clothes in a “to pack” pile, “to mail” pile, or a “to dump” pile it was plain to see that this was not true. It was also very disconcerting for us to realize how many “favorite shirts” we have.

It’s a little harder for us than for most travelers. Usually people leave for trips with the intent of returning home. There is no need, no matter how much a traveler would want to, to take everything. But for us, what we don’t take, other than a few things we will mail home, we have to throw away.

Some of these things were hard to come by. I love Arm & Hammer toothpaste, which is not sold here in Japan. I order them online from Amazon and pay the extra shipping. I have 2 extra tubes of the stuff, which doesn’t seem like much. But my pack is too heavy and I need to take only the essentials. Toothpaste, which can be bought anywhere (as long as you care little for the brand), is not essential.

In December, Mark and I went back home to visit family. I did pack light, but still, I didn’t wear half the clothes I brought. That was not so bad for that trip. We drove in cars the whole time. Our flight cost the same whether we took 2 check-in suitcases each or 1 combined. (We actually took one suit case combined and 1 carry-on each.)

This time, taking thing A means leaving behind thing B. It would break my heart to take a shirt I never wear after throwing away a tube of my beloved toothpaste. (Yes, I love Arm & Hammer toothpaste that much!)

And it’s not just me. This is hitting Mark hard too. He’s the king of “favorite shirts” and “favorite shorts”. I asked him the past weekend how many shirts and shorts he packed. “I have 6 shorts and 12 shirts,” Mark told me.

“Are you planning on not doing laundry for a whole year?” I asked with as much snark as I could put in my voice.

“That’s not too much. I have plenty of space in my pack.”

“Do you have a towel?” I challenged him.


“Do you have shoes?”

“Those will be on my feet,” he answered confidently.

“What about your sleeping mat, your toiletries, your computer, camera, charger, smartphone,” I went on listing things I knew we had to take.

Mark looked at his pack. He had most of the things from the list, but they were sitting next to his pack, not in it. The pack was almost full and would not hold everything. “So, you’re saying I should start over with less clothes?”

I looked at my own backpack. It looked like it had just finished its Thanksgiving dinner and it was still missing many of the things I listed for Mark. “Yes. And, I think I do too.”

“How many shorts do you have?” he asked me.

“Four, but I think I’m going to get rid of one pair to make space for an extra tube of toothpaste…”

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