15 Things I love about England, 15 Things I miss about Japan

Coming home made me appreciate so many things about England, but also the things I miss about Japan. So in no particular order, here they are.

15 Things I love about England

1. Long summer evenings when you can enjoy being outside until 10 o’clock. Unlike Japan where you’d be in darkness from 7:30 onwards.

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2. Warm days with blue skies and puffy clouds. Compared to a humid Japanese summer, an English summer is pure bliss.IMG_3741

3. A long list of food from roast chicken, pastries, sausage rolls, some many different cheeses, chocolate that melts in your mouth, fat juicy beef burgers, sausages and mash, good pizzas, fish and chips, lasagna and so many different types of bread. And when you want something different, there’s Italian, French, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Polish and so many other types of food to choose from.

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Enjoying a Middle Eastern mezze.

4. Being literate again. It’s SO nice not to be that foreigner who doesn’t understand! I can walk with confidence into a bank, post office or shop with confidence now. Yet I’ve caught myself saying ‘arigatou’, ‘sumimasen’ and ‘gomen nasai’ on the odd occasion!

5. Reading newspapers and watching TV. The simple pleasures in life.

6. Pubs. A public drinking space Japan so desperately lacks. There are no seat charges, no fancy drinks, just locals having a chat and or playing live music.

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On a recent trip to Ireland with my friends, the pubs were a key-part of our itinerary!

7. Browsing bookstores and reading real books. Walking around Waterstones, touching the covers and flicking through the pages is a pleasure I didn’t even know I missed. Much better than online shopping on a Kindle and reading from a cold, hard electronic screen.

8. Seeing people enjoy themselves more. From seeing couples kissing and holding hands in the street, to families playing outdoors together and neighbours having a BBQ together. These are seldom sights in Japan.

9. Reasonably priced fruit. I was in heaven when I walked around a British supermarket’s fruit section because everything was so cheap! In Japan fruit is available and delicious, but it is bank-breakingly expensive. Strawberries being about £5 for 12, apples about £2 each and water melons ranging from £10 to over £1000! You sure couldn’t have 5-a-day in Japan!

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Picking fruit from my Dad’s allotment for free!

10. European cafe culture. People talking and laughing loudly in cafes, sitting outside in the street, reading a paper and enjoying a cup of coffee and watching the world go by. There weren’t many cafes like this in Japan. IMG_3910

11. Cooking. Having cupboards full of ingredients my creativity in the kitchen has been rekindled. So far I’ve cooked a platter of Indian food, multiple salads and never-failing desserts.

12. Friendly, but sometimes unprofessional customer service. Having a chat whilst you buy your shopping is usual in this country, even if it’s just about the weather! Yet this was taken to extremes when a Boots sales assistant started asking about my upcoming holiday, even when there was a queue of waiting customers!

13. Getting back to nature. After two years in Japan where I had almost no contact with animals, I’ve turned into an animal lover. I now find myself petting other people’s pets, even if they’re chickens!

Even chickens will do!

Even chickens will do!

14. Live music. Buskers playing in the street, bands playing in pubs and multiple music festivals. Music is a lot more accessible here than in Japan, where I never heard any free live music.

A girl dancing around a busker playing the 'hang' in Ireland.

A girl dancing around a busker playing the ‘hang’ in Ireland.

15. Of course, there are the obvious things I haven’t mentioned, like seeing friends and family again. Yeah, that’s pretty nice.

A typical Walker holiday - climbing cliffs in Cornwall.

A typical Walker holiday – climbing cliffs in Cornwall.

 

15 Things I miss about Japan 

1. The impeccable service. In Japan, you’re always welcomed into a restaurant with ‘irashaimase’ and the waiter or waitress will really look after you. Service in England depends on where you go, how much you pay and the mood of the waiter or waitress.

2. Cleanliness. In Japan the toilets are always spotless, whereas you’d be lucky to find a public toilet in England, let alone a clean one! In general Japanese people care a lot more about the appearance of their house, shop, street and neighbourhood.

3. The food! Everyone misses sushi, I didn’t know I’d be craving miso soup, white rice and tempura. It’s time I found a Japanese restaurant in England.

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Tempura soba… mmmhh.

4. Combinis. Everything is convenient in Japan. A combini (convenience store) is a shop selling everything from hot food to alcohol at competitive prices and the shops are everywhere! You just have to look down a road and you’ll see a sign for one. The equivalent in England are petrol stations, that just have overpriced chocolate bars, newspapers and a toilet that may or may not be out of order.

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5. Vending machines. These are everywhere in Japan and they sell everything from cold and hot drinks, ice creams, snacks to gadgets! I don’t think I’ve seen one since coming back to England.

Ice cream vending machines!

Ice cream vending machines!

6. Driving an automatic car. Going back to driving a manual car in England is like being a learner all over again. I’ve stopped stalling now but I miss the ease of an automatic car.

7. Fireworks, festivals and beach parties. During Obon Week in the summer there are amazing firework displays that are the highlight of festivals. There isn’t much to compete with them in England.

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8. Cute things. Everything from road signs to toilet paper has some kind of cute character on it. I miss them dearly.

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If only this was for sale.

From the cute to the ridiculous.

From the cute to the ridiculous. Here is a Year of the Rat family portrait.

9. Talking about anything in public and not being overheard. As foreigners in Japan you can get very lax about what you say out loud to your friends on a train, sharing secrets, laughing at bad Engrish or the salaryman snoozing in the corner, as you know the chances are none can understand you. Back in England, you have to be wary who is listening!

10. The best trains in the world. Always on time, always clean, not overly packed, seats facing the right way and they go fast! I was shocked when I took a train in England and it went so slowly I could count the sheep in the fields. It would have been a scenic ride if I’d actually got a seat. And let’s not even talk about the underground in London, I’m still scarred from my experience of riding the central line on a busy Saturday afternoon.

The train from Tokyo to Narita, a double-decker carriage, clean and efficient.

The last train I took in Japan; a double-decker carriage, clean, fast and efficient.

11. Hand towels whenever you sit down to eat in Japan you’re given a hand towel to freshen up. In England you’ll be lucky if there are paper napkins on the table.

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12. The view from my apartment, and mountains and rice fields in general. The Japanese countryside where I lived was so beautiful. I’m sad I won’t get to see the mountains turn red in autumn there.

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13. My favourite hangouts in Echizen. From cute cafes, Thai and Brazilian restaurants, to conveyer-belt sushi joints and the bike ride along the river. I miss the places and the people I used to know. 

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Cafe Colo with the owner and creative chef Chiharu-san.

14. My friends and host family. The friends I made in Japan were the best part of my experience there. I know that the close friends made there will always be just there for me, even if we just keep up on Skype and Facebook.

IMG_401815. My colleagues and students. These were the people who made my job so enjoyable. Tomorrow school starts again in Japan. I wish the new ALTs luck starting!

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Here are the foreign students and foreign helpers at my school. Good luck to them all!

 

 

Cultural Crossings: Japanese finding their hula self

It was back in April when I accidentally walked into a Hawaiian hula dance class at Echizen Cultural Centre. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d have found an ikebana class, or a calligraphy class but instead, I came across about twenty women in long colourful skirts with flowers in their hair, dancing to Hawaiian music. How strange, I thought, to find hula dancing in my small Japanese town! 

From then on I’ve realised how much Japanese people love Hawaii, and its exotic Polynesian heritage and American culture. Speak to any Japanese person about Hawaii and they’ll probably tell you about their visit to the ‘tropical paradise’, or how much they want to go. It is of course the closest place to actual America, and Japanese people, at least my students, love America. I wanted to find out where this fascination began, and why there is a hula class in Echizen. 

The first outreach of friendship

In the January of 1806, a Japanese cargo ship named Inawaka-maru left a port near Tokyo to head back to her homeport near Hiroshima. During the journey she was battered by a horrific storm. The eight-man crew had to cut down the mast due to the strong winds, and their fate was at the mercy of the elements. As their ship drifted across the Pacific Ocean, their water and rice stores ran dry, but the men survived by fishing and collecting rain water. It was an American captain near Hawaii that found the men in a state of near starvation and nursed them back to health. The captain left the eight men in Oahu under the care of the Hawaiian King Kamehameha, who openly welcomed these foreigners to his country. Due to illness on their return journey, only one of the men made it back to Japan to document their tales of the Hawaiian kindness, but this account began an amicable relationship between the two countries.

The first wave of migration

Scared of the affects of most foreign contact, between 1869 and 1885, Japan banned emigration to Hawaii, in fear that Japanese labourers would degrade the reputation of the Japanese race. Yet the Hawaiian-Japanese relations were softened when the king of Hawaii visited Japan in 1881 and met with Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito. The similarities between the countries were apparent: both were island nations of the Pacific, both were monarchies and both were under pressure of Western powers. To join the countries even more, King Kalakaua even proposed a marriage between his daughter and a Japanese prince. This alliance never happened, but the ban on emigration to Hawaii was lifted, and in 1885 the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii to work on sugar-cane and pineapple plantations. Most of them never left, and became the Issei – first generation – of the Japanese diaspora in Hawaii.

Settling and choosing ‘picture brides’

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

The Japanese community in Hawaii grew and grew. Like other immigrants they revolted against the hard working labour conditions of the plantations and set up their own businesses. The number of Japanese migrants arriving in Hawaii made it possible to maintain strong cultural ties with Japan. They brought their religious traditions of Shinto and Buddhism with them, as well as many other customs, festivals and foods.

It appears that the Japanese community kept themselves quite separate from the native Hawaiians, well at least in who they would marry. A ‘bride trade’ emerged, where Japanese men in Hawaii would choose a Japanese bride from looking at a set of postcards with Japanese women on them. And so the chosen women crossed the ocean to meet a man they had never met to start a family in Hawaii, probably the first mail-order type bride.

Picture brides brought from Japan

Picture brides brought from Japan

WWII – what to do with Japanese Americans?

Obviously WWII, and the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, was a slight hiccup in this harmonious relationship. At the time 157,000 Japanese were living in Hawaii – that’s about a third of the population, but only about 2000 Japanese Americans were put in internment camps. These camps were to control people who were a threat to American security, and in other parts of America, such as California, many more Japanese were put in these camps. This disparity between American policies was to sustain the economy of Hawaii, as if a third of its population were to be put in an internment camp, its economy would implode on itself. Yet it must have been an extremely hard time to be a Japanese American in Hawaii when the two countries were at war.

Hawaii today

Now Japanese Americans make up about a fifth of the whole population in Hawaii. Japanese is a major language spoken and due to the large number of Japanese tourists whom visit, Japanese is often added to signs. For a long time, the identities of the Nisei and Sansei, second and third generation Japanese born in Hawaii, find their identities crossing both countries.

Hawaiian culture in Japan

My friend's hat - bought in Japan - Hawaiian inspired fashion.

My friend’s hat – bought in Japan – Hawaiian inspired fashion.

Over the last 10 years the popularity of Hawaiian culture has rocketed. Not just Aloha shirts, but learning Hawaiian language, or taking up the ukulele. A craze is sweeping the nation – that of hula dancing. It is estimated about 400,000 Japanese are involved with learning Hawaiian dance, most of whom are middle-aged women who enjoy the light exercise and the excitement of learning a new dance form These Japanese are drawn to the rhythm and sway of the dance, something exotically freeing from traditional Japanese dances. Many of these followers make a trip to Hawaii to take hula lessons or attend competitions. To cater for the needs of these hula dances, Hawaiian jewellery and Hawaiian-style dress shops are springing up. People are interested in the music, the culture and learning the moves of the dance. A student of the dance, Chieko Kobayashi, 50, says that the dance captures her emotionally. “Dancing makes me feel I can be just my soul, nothing else,” Kobayashi said.

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A Japanese hula group competing in a dancing competition in Hawaii

This fascination in Hawaiian culture no doubt comes from the thousands of Japanese people who choose to visit Hawaii on their vacation. For those who can afford it, instead of going to their own tropical islands in Okinawa, they go to Hawaii. Hawaii continues to be the most popular honeymoon location for Japanese people, with 40% of newly wed couples choosing to spend their vacation there. Why? Because it’s ‘a home away from home’. There is the excitement of travelling abroad, but they also know they can speak Japanese, eat at Japanese restaurants and stay in Japanese hotels. On top of this, they are in ‘America’ and can watch baseball matches, eat the biggest hamburgers and splurge in American shops, where the shop attendant probably speaks Japanese.

So from my research, I can now understand why there are a group of middle-aged women in my town who are learning to sway together to the gentle sounds of Hawaiian music. I wonder what other surprising cultural crossings there still are in Japan…

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Hiroko Hara dancing in the annual Hula Ho’olauna Aloha festival