Well, hello there, fellow people on the internet. I have not blogged in ages, although I have about four half-baked articles lying around in the drawer aka the online storage space of WordPress. Right now I am doing the most white people’ish hipster thing I could think of and am sitting (with a Soy Latte, no less!) in a Starbucks in Tokyo, pretending to work. Okay, I am working on this article, but since this project has been rather ignored by me over the past few weeks (or should I say months already?), I still feel as if I was pretending. There are also so many people around me talking that it gets a little hard to focus.
But seriously, in Japan there are a fuckton of people working or learning in cafés. And should I tell you why? The same reason I am currently sitting here: They probably don’t have a friggin desk at home! Or they simply share a room with too many people to actually focus on their work or their studies. Or their home is a ridiculously long distance away from their work and they want to finish something before starting their several hour-long commute. Or they just like drinking expensive coffee. 😀
While I am currently living almost in the middle of Shinjuku, the share house I am in is in such a bad shape that it has been seriously affecting me. Before I simply did not have the time to blog because I was travelling and I did not want to drag myself and my laptop to a café to have a desk, which really is something a lot of places I slept at have been missing. Of course they Airbnb places often had a kitchen table or something – but this did not always mean that the place was quiet or big enough to actually sit there comfortably. Even worse, apparently all Japanese people are able to sit at “desks” which are approximately 30 cm above the ground, while sitting there in a yoga position or while half-sitting on their feet – which is a position in which I will never be able to get anything done that takes more than two minutes.
Japan is the most modern country in the world
In any case, Japan has become a country of opposites for me. There are so many convenient things – and then there are things which make me want to facepalm because of “Why would you do that??”. This includes the absence of desks and the insuffieciency of Japanese toilet paper and tissues. Japanese toilet paper is the same as Japanese tissues: namely see-through. It’s easier to find some that is flower-scented than actual thick toilet paper where you don’t have to waste a third of the roll per erm sitting. Sorry for this topic, but it still confuses me. Japanese paper creation is an art form and they have toilets that can play fake flushes, forest sounds and probably also Beethoven’s 9th symphony for all I know, but they don’t have toilet paper that works without using fifteen layers of it.
This is probably in part due to the fact that the fancy toilets can also clean your private parts for you by showering them with water, but I doubt everyone actually uses this function. And besides, there is still the other extreme of Japanese toilets, the squat toilets, where you just balance over a ceramic hole in the ground, which does most definitely not have the function of cleaning anything. The fake flush sound is often still there though. Thanks to little electronic motion sensors installed on the stall’s wall, you can still prevent others from completely overhearing your peeing sounds, even while balancing over a hole in the ground and trying not to slip or wet your feet. Amusing, isn’t it? Of course I can only talk about the women’s toilets, but usually in tourist areas you can tell whether the person in the next stall is Japanese or not just by waiting for the flushing sound to start. ^^ This only works with the sound thingies that do not start automatically of course, but it still entertains me to think how shy Japanese people seem to be. 😀
And yes, Japanese people are often shy and afraid to talk to foreigners. Especially when Japanese people think they might have to speak English, a lot of them get scared because they don’t want to embarass themselves by making mistakes.
At the same time though, these people can ask questions or make comments which would be considered weird or even rude in other countries. A woman for example once let me know without any conversation beforehand that I had a long nose and that this was a compliment for Japanese people since their noses are all so tiny. Which of course a lot of the Western world finds quite beautiful, but okay. Speaking of which, never have I felt so underdressed and boring. 😀 Most women here dress very stylish and there are almost no people to be found who just run around in jogging pants or something similar. Unless these belong to their specific style, of course.
At the same time the pressure to be beautiful causes the cosmetics industry to boom without end. Besides tons of cleaning, brightening, flattening, prettying and whatevering ointments and creams, there are even some very weird products, such as different slimming pants or hard masks you are supposed to put over your face while sleeping. They will then squash your face in, squeeze your skin or do whatever it is they can do to prevent wrinkles, while making you look as if you had a sibling that was running for tyrannic king of the year, I suppose. But I am not entirely sure about their function, to me they just look frightening. 😀
Japan is expensive
Those things are usually not cheap either. On the one hand, Japan is insanely expensive when it comes to some things, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. The good old banana is about the only fruit that is not expensive here. Still makes me cry a little on the inside when I walk past the grocery store and see single, not very appetizing looking apples for more than 100 Yen (right now about 85 Cents US-$ or 81 Cents €) apiece. And this is considered to be rather cheap. When I arrived here, one apple cost about 350 Yen … o.O Going out to eat on the other hand is rather cheap. Of course not for vegans, who have to either speak and read Japanese to get around or search for vegan-friendly restaurants, which usually charge more than 1,000 Yen for a burger (yup, that’s about US-$ 8.50 or € 8.10). Fortunately, some of the cheaper stores also have okayish cheap veggies, depending on the season and – for some reason – also not too expensive bags with frozen veggies. And did I mention that you get soy milk almost everywhere (although they don’t seem too fond of this stuff called “Calcium” here) and that tofu is amazingly cheap? No? So now you know that cooking is an option. Also I discovered rice cookers for me, which are really an awesome invention and awfully convenient.
On the other hand (yeah, I know, the other other hand), you have 100 Yen stores like “Daiso” and “Can Do”, where you can get almost everything. I am not kidding you, from socks to cleaning utensils, to cups, scissors, chopstick sets, DIY-equipment, decoration, to new years cards, they have almost everything and the big stores even sell packaged food. Most of the stuff costs 100 Yen, which means you can get basic household goods for a very low price. Of course the quality is sometimes not the best (I had a 300 Yen wool hat unravel after 2 weeks), but it’s good for getting started. When I say 100 Yen, I actually mean 108 Yen of couse, because Japan, like the U.S., likes to make their customers include the (8%) tax themselves. Which is one of the moments where I thought “Seriously? How is this convenient?” to myself. I don’t know the reason for this, I just know that it is annoying to calculate “Uuuh, approximately 10 % more … that meaaans uuuhmmm …” in my head everytime I want to buy something. By the way, the nice stores show both prices on the price tag.
Japan is very clean
Well, that depends on where you are. Walk through Kabukicho in the morning and you will find lots of trash lying around that nobody seems to take care of. Walk through other areas in bright daylight and marvel at how clean it is – without any trash cans! Seriously, Japan kind of banned public trash cans a few years ago after a terrorist attack and so only some train stations and all convenience stores have them. Which is another reason why convenience stores are heaven and another reason why I am confused by Japanese people because I have yet to see actual trash cans behind the houses. Very often I just see garbage bags lying around, which in some cases are even being secured with nets so that wild cats or other animals don’t spread their contents everywhere.
Coming back to the nice convenience stores who have actual trashcans, these stores don’t really offer too much vegan food besides plain rice balls (sometimes Onigiri with seaweed is also okay), nuts and inari sushi or one kind of veggie sushi at Family Mart. So a bit of a disappointment for the vegans among us. For the rest of the world, you are settled guys and girls, as you could practically live with only convenience stores as your lifeline. But also vegans in a hurry or people trying to find just about anything late at night, these stores will in 90 % of the cases save your ass. The biggest chains are 7eleven, Family Mart and Lawson and often you can get some money at their ATM’s even with a foreign credit card. A lot of places in Japan still don’t take credit cards or want something to do with foreign bank accounts. ^^
Most of the convenience stores (the Japanese shortening is “konbini” btw, which most Anime fans probably already knew^^) are open 24/7 and on holidays, so you will never be completely without a place to buy: fast food, (non-vegan) bread, sweets, water and all kinds of beverages including 200 ml soy milk packages and a dazzling variety of smoothies and vegetable juices, coffee filters, pens, Japanese magazines, cheap fresh coffee, hot meat buns or buns with red bean paste in them (I think I once saw a red bean one without milk or eggs in it, but I cannot remember where, sorry :/), and generally a lot of things. A lot of the convenience food can also be heated in a microwave right at the store and some konbinis even offer hot water dispensers, in case you want to make sum cup ramen. Yeah, they aren’t called “convenience” stores for nothing, you know. 😉 This is really something I would like to have everywhere. 😀
Japanese people are shy
As I mentioned before, while most people come over as very reserved or rather shy, there are some exceptions. Whenever you go into any store, people will shout at you and consider this to be polite. “Irashaimasseeeeeee!!!!!” or often just a leftover “…seeeeeeeee!!!” means as far as I’m concerned “Welcome to our store! I don’t know why I am shouting and I know you are a tourist and have no idea what I just said but please feel welcome while all of us store clerks are torturing your ears to show you that we noticed you entering and value you as a customer! Of course we don’t know you and I personally couldn’t care less about you, but the main thing is that you feel acknowledged and I am polite and stuff, right?” in Japanese. In general everyone working in customer services is extremely polite and does their outmost to help you – unless they think they might have to speak English, in which case they might simply say “Please wait a moment!” and either get a colleague to help or vanish forever from your sight. But you get used to the constant bellowing, which is a small, albeit annoying, price to pay for actually polite people at the counter. Yes, I come from Europe, where this is not common standard procedure in customer service jobs.
Another point where shyness is no longer an option is the excuse to go rampant called alcohol. Just walk around some city districts after dark that have a lot of Izakaya (Japanese bars) or Western bars and be amazed at Japanese people suddenly singing in the streets. Since the singing might sometimes be accompanied by stumbling or vomiting, you needn’t be amazed in an overly positive way. Just accept that Japanese people are people too and that some (or a lot?) of them like to get drunk just like a lot of Westerners do.
In contrast to Japanese people, things in Japan very much love to talk to you, which can be quite surprising, when you first come to Japan. Getting some money from the ATM? “Welcome! Please press the following buttons … Thank you, we’d like to serve you again!” Riding the elevator? “Doors are opening! Doors are closing” (Probably. The elevator speaks Japanese, so I am guessing here. ^^) Avoiding the elevator and taking the escalator instead? “Thank you for taking this escalator! Please do not walk on this escalator and stand to the left side. Thank you!” Buying tickets? “Please insert the money!” Going grocery shopping? Well, maybe you will get one of the automatic paying machines, which even offer an English option: “Please insert money, please press the button if you have finished inserting money. Thank you! Please TAKE YOUR RECEIPT!!!!!!!!!” The latter one has always been shouted at me, maybe so nobody forgets the insanely important receipt. Which you can then throw away at the next trash can. Aka at the next konbini … Which even offer small boxes at the register to directly throw away your receipt, after the person at the register dutifully handed it to you … Japan … xD
Japan is quiet
While there are a lot of shrines and temples around, which make you go “I should definitely calm down and not hurry so much …”, this is not the standard for all of Japan. In general, a lot of Japan consists of blinking neon lights and grotesquely big billboards. But before I bash Japan, I seriously think that the backstreets, which are not in the entertainment districts can be totally adorable.
But back to the complaining. 😀 Did I mention the advertisements? Surely you have seen some Japanese ads before, right? If you have, it was probably in a “WTF Japan?”-Compilation of some kind, because Japanese ads are usually designed according to the strict guideline “the crazier, the better!”. Or at least that is the way a lot of Japanese media and ads appear to me. Squeaky schoolgirls singing about the next best instant noodles, overdressed guys almost making out with sweets, hysteric cartoon animals and anime characters doing whatever they can to make you get a seizure before you have the chance to buy whatever it might be they are advertising.
Japanese ads are often outrageously confusing for foreigners, loud, blinking, annoying, but can also be refreshingly funny. Even if you don’t speak the language. There is an ad for some dishwashing tabs, I think, which features a Japanese housewife fulfilling the cliché of doing everything at once. By cleaning the floor in an overly ridiculous way, she exercises at the same time and also helps granddad to eat his peas and or plays with her kid. This is all to demonstrate, that the new washy washy tablet thingies have threeeeee functions at once, can you imagine? Seriously, I cannot even remember the name of the product, but you might get the gist of it. And this is one of the tamest ads. I have seen five minute long ads on Youtube, which were a mini-anime show concerned with … contact lenses? I think the magical girl troup fighting in seemingly outer space was doing some thing or other to restore someones eyesight. Or just people in weird costumes doing stuff, where I couldn’t even figure out whether this was a music video or an actual ad …
More annoying than the ads, which you can just click away most of the time, are the jingles. There are jingles for everything. Manga cafés have them, the 100 Yen store has one, the vegetable corner in the supermarket might have one (as much as you’d like me to, I did not make the last one up). You name it, it probably has its own jingle that will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Or as long as no other jingle comes around, which is probably not very long. Some shopping streets will have speakers installed at the streetlamps which will then enlighten you about the amazingness of the shopping street you are currently on or just play songs. Songs are also omnipresent during any visit to a larger shopping mall of which Japan has plenty. (During Christmas time “songs” means you can get WHAM!ed in seven different cover versions per hour …)
A lot of the shopping malls also don’t want to have you walking around outside without any entertainment, so some offer big screens on their outer walls, which might either just show some illuminations or play endless repetitions of ads made specifically for the place you’re currently at or just play something like the Top 20 songs, which are hot right now and probably include some Korean boy bands and at least one song by the phenomenon that is AKB48. In any case: You gotta learn to live with the constant blast of speakers around you or invest in some good noise canceling headphones. And if you thought you could just get away by not visiting any large shopping malls or shopping streets, sorry to break it to you, but advertisements might follow you around. Because Japan likes to plaster their currently hot boy bands, girl bands, anime bands, or simply some shops logo onto a truck and let that ride around the city, playing one part of one song on repeat. For ever. I have no idea how much those poor truck drivers get paid, but if they have no noise canceling drivers compartment I would be amazed if they could utter a comprehensible sentence at the end of the day, without singing in the same rhythm of the stupid jingle that was battered into their brain.
Japan is full of anime
Well. This is true, since some of the trucks I just mentioned are definitely ads for Japanese animations (see above for one ^^). Additionally, you get merchandise for anime in practically every shop and sometimes in very unexpected places. E.g.: I bought new razor blades the other day because they had “One Piece” figurines as a gimmick. xD
At the same time, of course not everyone in Japan is as obsessed with anime as a lot of foreigners who come to Japan are. Some people just don’t like animation and while most Japanese people have watched some kind of anime when they were kids, a lot of them don’t really know more than Studio Ghibli movies and children’s shows like Doraemon and have seen other things like Naruto or One Piece only in passing and that’s it. But who can blame them? Most Westerners probably also watched cartoons as a kid, which they would not now be proclaiming as the best thing ever, because they prefer reading, Hollywood movies or whatever else. I just wanted to mention that it is really ease to deck yourself in anime merchandise even without going to specific anime-related stores, just because it’s omnipresent without everyone having to go nuts about it. It’s just very very common to have cutesy mascots for everything or to depict stuff as anime characters instead of using real people. That’s just the way it is.
Now that I have covered anime, I am content that I have mentioned everything. 😀 No, seriously, the battery of my laptop is nearly drained, so I will soon have to stop writing. I missed writing so much, I don’t want to stop. But I wasn’t able to get a seat near a power outlet thingy and so I had to rely on my battery. But since I have already finished my coffee and I need to drink some water before I collapse, I might just call it quits for today. But this was relaxing and way less back crushing than sitting on the upper bunk bed while trying to balance the laptop on your knees. Maybe I’ll come again tomorrow and start earlier – with water and food supplies, so I can block the space here even longer. Sorry, I am an awful person. 😀
If I have the time, I should definitely add some media galleries of my travels. I did not take a lot of photos in Tokyo yet, but I have tons of pictures from other cities. I just need to write the accompanying articles … ^^” The current images are all from my phone, so I apologize for the bad quality. I just wanted to have something in this article that is not just words. o.o
I hope you are having a wonderful time, whereeeeeeever you are! 😀
Fluffy greetings from Tokyo,