Japan: One Final Look Back

My time in Japan has come to an end. It’s bittersweet: I’m ready to get back to the US and get to work since I now have my degree, but I’ve really enjoyed my time and how much I’ve grown as a person while abroad. I gained a ton of perspective about the world and foreign cultures, but I also learned a ton about myself. With all that said, I thought it would be fun to go back through my time in Japan and list off some things I really liked, I really didn’t like, and things I wish I would have known or done.

While in Japan, I really came to like…

the Ramen. I’m not a big cup noodle guy, so I never really understood how great ramen could be until I came here to Japan. Sure, I’d had a bowl or two at Japanese food joints, but believe me when I say that the neighborhood ramen joints are by far some of the best places you can visit in Japan. They serve the most delicious noodles at a very fair price (often, you can eat a massive multi-course ramen set for nine or ten dollars). The high-traffic, famous ones (cough cough Ichiran cough cough) are hit-or-miss because they succeed based on reputation instead of the quality of their product, and they often aren’t as good as the hole-in-the-wall mom and pop shops. It’s something I’m going to miss terribly.

…the Bathrooms. Ok, so I’m not going to be gross here and go into way too much detail, but everything in a Japanese bathroom is designed to ensure that you’re clean and refreshed after visiting it. The high-efficiency showers are designed to still deliver high pressure, the toilets keep your butt clean, and the bathtubs that exist in pretty much every Japanese apartment are a great way to relax (they’re deeper than the American ones to allow for soaking). Of course, the dorms don’t have those tubs, so to properly get a good soak on you have to visit…

…the “onsen”/”sento”. Okay, a bit of explanation: in Kyoto, what is referred to in the rest of the Japan as “sento”- a bathhouse- is referred to as an “onsen”- a hot spring- because hot springs water in Kyoto is very hard to get. In fact, only one or two places in Kyoto have actual hot spring water (what is known as a true “onsen” throughout Japan), and it has to be piped up from over 1,250 meters below the city. These aren’t bathtubs either- they are basically giant Jacuzzi tubs with a variety of bubble features. Either way, the water is very hot in both cases and has all sorts of minerals that leave your skin looking and feeling amazing. If you’re not feeling well, it’s a great way to get some energy back or relax (surprisingly, it has both effects). Almost all sento/onsen have saunas, cold water tubs, and other awesome things designed to help you feel great. Many have outdoor tubs. The only thing that gives some people pause is the necessity to be naked in most of them (some onsen resorts in Japan allow you to wear swimsuits) but if you can get past that, you will feel so darn good and clean afterwards.

…the quiet. Japan is a place where people try not to disturb others, so there is a serious focus put on quiet. It’s lovely. People talk quietly, silence their phones in public places (and NEVER talk on speakerphone in public), rarely honk their horns on their cars, don’t blast music in public, and do their best to keep everything peaceful. Kyoto has roughly 1.5 million people living in it, but even in the downtown area, it’s the same noise level as Jackson Avenue in Oxford most of the time.

…the convenience stores. Yeah, they’re as convenient and amazing as people say. The food at them is outstanding; I’ve had better Japanese food at a “conbini” than I have at a lot of Japanese restaurants here in the United States. Moreover, they’re meant as a one-stop shop for pretty much everything you need. For example, I’ve bought an extension cord, lightbulbs, body soap, laundry soap, hair product, and cooking ingredients all in one purchase at 7-Eleven in Japan. That’s insane that you’re able to do that at a store you can walk to and with the size of a gas station.

…the public transportation. Honestly, this is the number one thing we need to learn from the Japanese. Most Japanese families only own one car- two if they’re rich or they like performance cars- because it’s so easy, cheap, and convenient to use public transit in Japan. It’s much more reliable as well, where you’re almost always on time getting somewhere (buses are the only exception, but even those are more reliable than their US counterparts; I’m looking at you, Oxford buses). It goes almost everywhere in Japan and is a great way to save money instead of sinking hundreds of dollars each month into car payments, gas, upkeep and insurance. Most of all, train stations and major transit hubs are a great place to find awesome food and shops, since they tend to pop up around them!

Honorable mentions: Japanese pens (they love pens with multiple selectable colors, and so do I), Japanese fried foods (tempura and katsu are both amazing), karaoke joints (super fun and don’t forget to use the provided maracas), yakiniku (way more common in Japan than Korean barbeque is in the US, sadly, but it’s very fun and really tasty).

While in Japan, I really didn’t like…

…the cost of living. Japan is crazy expensive for food and housing costs. All the money you save by taking public transit instead of a car is lost entirely because most things in Japan costs as much as living in Los Angeles or San Francisco (depending on your city). Kyoto may have been slightly more affordable for housing, but the food costs- meat, fish, fruits and vegetables- were some of the worst I’ve ever seen. I saved thousands of dollars as an emergency fund for Japan just in case, but I still ended up needing to take out a personal loan to make sure I could make ends meet while there.

…how people often treat foreigners. The Japanese are notoriously xenophobic (though they’re not as vocal about it as certain groups of Americans) and it comes through in the way they treat foreigners. In the best case, they’re cold and detached; mind you, that is the way many Japanese are towards everyone, but especially so towards foreigners, being unwilling to even so much as talk to you when it’s necessary to do so. But every so often, you meet some Japanese who laugh at foreigners, stare and glare, talk crap in Japanese to their companions in front of a foreigner, treat you like you’re an idiot, or outright make disgusted faces at you. Sure, there are some nice people in Japan, but there’s also a ton who aren’t. It was one of the lower points of my time abroad.

…the needlessly large amount of overly complex rules for everything. Yeah, the stereotypes hold up: the Japanese are ridiculously uptight and love rules. Whether it’s real rules or unspoken rules, there are tons of them and it’s hard to keep track. Foreigners tend to break them unintentionally, so it’s just another reason why the Japanese people tend to stare and glare at us. It’s not a great feeling.

…the burgers. Maybe it’s just an American thing, but I love a good burger, and the Japanese can’t make one. They think McDonald’s is a great example of a burger, and almost all other burger places in Japan make “hamburgers” the same way we make meatloaf in the US: patties consisting of mostly pork with some beef, bread crumbs, and egg, with the occasional chopped onion. I’m not saying it’s bad all of the time- in particular, I liked the Japanese chain Freshness Burger- but it’s not the same thing as a hamburger. It’s a meatloaf sandwich; sometimes, you want a taste of home halfway around the world, and it’s disappointing when you can’t get it.

Lastly, of things I wish I knew or did when I was there…

I would have spent more time sightseeing, but also more time having experiences. Once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen most of them; however, Japan has tons of cool or weird niche experiences that are hard to experience anywhere else in the world, and I should have spent more time doing them.

I would have made sure to plan ahead for expenses even more. I seriously underestimated how expensive Japan was, and it put me in a bad spot quite often. If you go to Japan, make a budget and stick to it like glue.

I would have taken less classes. I decided- wrongly- to take three extra classes on top of intensive Japanese. This was a mistake. I pushed myself too hard at times, and had much less time to sightsee and enjoy myself.

I would have packed more clothes that I could wear with everything, and packed lighter for everything else. Japan doesn’t carry sizes that many Americans can wear. If you’re taller than 5’8” for men or 5’6” for women, you’re going to have a rough time finding clothes or shoes. In fact, my normal-sized Asian friend from San Francisco (he’s 5’11” and thin) often couldn’t find any clothes, and never was able to find shoes. When I tore my only pair of jeans, I had to wear shorts for three weeks until I could get a pair sent from Amazon internationally, which cost me a ton of money. I also packed clothes I never wore, toiletries I never used, and way too much unnecessary gear, which made packing for home and getting my luggage around a living nightmare. Take it from me- pack light.

I would have studied more daily-use Japanese before I arrived. I was lucky in that I made Japanese friends before and during my time in Japan. They managed to help me sort through the difficult moments. However, there were so many times I was unable to make my point, or where I needed to use piecemeal Japanese combined with Google Translate to get things done. It was embarrassing and difficult and exhausting, all at the same time. If I were to do it again, I would have made sure to take classes in the language before going to the country, because once I got to the point where my Japanese was serviceable for everyday use, it made my life so much easier.

Most of all, I wish I could have done this sooner rather than ending my college career here. It would have been great to share more of these experiences with my friends instead of heading directly to my first job immediately after getting back. Don’t wait, just go!

Well, that’s all, folks. I’m no longer a student at Ole Miss, I’m back in the US, and I’m off to start my first full-time post-college job. It’s been a genuine pleasure, and I will always think of myself as a Rebel. Most of all, if you’re reading this, I hope you take the time to go take your own adventure. Sayonara!

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