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!

 

 

Kobe: the place to eat, shop and drink

IMG_0499Knowing I’d be visiting one of the most fashionable cities in Japan, I put on my best outfit; heeled ankle boots, my woollen coat and a beret. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as I did when I was in Moscow, wearing a fleece and trainers when every other woman was in stilettos and a fur-collared coat! When I arrived at the bustling Sannomiya station I was eager to try the renown Kobe Beef, so I headed straight to a steakhouse, not thinking about the cooking smells my best clothes would acquire during the meal…

Kobe beef

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Kobe beef is graded from A5 to C1, with A5 being the highest grade of meat that literally melts in your mouth due to the high fat content. Suffice to say A5 steak is pretty expensive, and not being a food critic I was happy to settle with a lower grade of meat for a much cheaper price! The steakhouse I’d been recommended, named Steakland, had a distinctly American-fifties feel to it, with a long wooden bar where people were sat on stools watching their slab of beef cooked in front of them and finishing their meal with a coffee and a cigarette (yes, smoking indoors in Japan is allowed). The lunchtime deal runs from 11am to 2pm and offers a set under ¥1000, a very affordable price. Yet as I turned up at 2.05pm, I had to pay ¥2800 for a set of 200g beef, fried vegetables, a soup, a salad and a coffee. There is also the choice between rice or ‘bread’, I opted for the latter but was slightly confused when a croissant turned up on my plate! When in all of history has steak been eaten with, on or inside a croissant! So if you do go here, take the rice.

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Despite the confusion over what ‘bread’ was, I enjoyed the meal, especially the tender steak. A young man, armed with a long sharp knife clipped to his belt, cooked the steak in front of me. First, he seasoned it, then grilled vegetables in copious amounts of butter. Then, he let it sizzle for a couple of minutes both sides (I asked for mine medium rare). He then drew his knife from his belt and sliced the steak with the expertise of someone who had done it a zillion times before. Fried garlic slices where lathered in butter and scattered on top of the steak. For someone who hasn’t eaten this much red meat since I arrived in Japan, the hearty steak outdid me, or maybe it was the vegetarian left in me that couldn’t stomach the bloodiness of the steak. Still I emerged from the dimly lit restaurant feeling full and satisfied but with the smell of the beef lingering on my clothes…

Views across the bay

Once energized enough to face the crowds, I walked to City Hall, a 24-storey building which has great 360′ views of the port city. From that height, Kobe looked like a toy-city with trains running like clockwork and tiny cars crossing the bridge to the island in the bay.

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Apart from a memorial flame burning in a park, there was no evidence of the 1995 earthquake which tore many buildings down. Wanting to find out more about the earthquake, I visited the City Museum.

An art exhibition seen before, but from another angle

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To my amusement there was an exhibition of Dutch artists, with Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, an exhibition I’d seen eight months earlier in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. I watched as an orderly queue of adults and children walked slowly passed the famous painting, in silence and in awe. A museum lady was standing by making sure no one lingered for too long in front of the painting. This was a sharp comparison to the chatter and shoving I experience when I saw the same painting in Cambridge! It appears that Japanese people take art museums very seriously and there is an almost religious atmosphere within the gallery. Their visit wouldn’t be complete without buying some sort of omiyage (souvenir) and their desire is catered for well. Here was my favourite item in the gift shop, Miffy dressed as The Girl with the Pearl Earring! So Japanese.

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The city museum had next to nothing on the 1995 earthquake, which makes sense as there is a whole other museum dedicated to that, but it was insightful about the foreign residents of Kobe who moved there when the city first opened for trade in 1868. A number of these American style buildings still exist in the district of Kitano and are a popular tourist attraction. The museum explained the relationship between the foreigners and Japanese, ”Some loved Japan and did their fest to mix with the Japanese.” If only the museum had tried their ‘fest’ to translate the plaques.

China Town and infectious consumerism

Past the 5* hotels and designer shops, I came across the bright red lights of Nankin-machi (China Town). After seeing a young girl take a bite of some street food then spin round shouting ”Oishii” (delicious), I couldn’t pass by this opportunity to have authentic Chinese food, even if I was still full from the steak. I gorged myself on peking duck rolls, sticky pork buns and bubble tea from the street stalls. I couldn’t recommend this place enough. You wouldn’t regret it.

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My journey back to my hostel took me past many independent and buzzing shops and I’d realized I’d become infected with Kobe consumerism. I bought a necklace, just because I liked the song playing in the shop and a pair of sunglasses just because the shop owner was wearing a funny sweater. It was a dangerous mood to be in, so I put my wallet away and walked back to the hostel.

Bonenkai (‘forget the year party’)

That night I stayed at Sannomiya R2 Hostel and had been invited to their Bonenkai party. This hostel was not the most comfortable stay I’ve had, as the rooms have futons not beds, but it was one of the most sociable. For a few hours a small gathering of staff and guests chatted, exchanged stories and drank together. 

That night I met a newly converted Zen Buddhist monk who was making the most out of his freedom before he had to adhere to the strict rules of his training programme at Fukui’s Eihe-ji temple. He drank the most out of everyone and said it helped him meditate! There was also a very interesting Japanese photographer of abandoned buildings. Check out his atmospheric photographs here 3+Thousand Photographs. Sat next to me was a Russian student of Japanese politics who was taking the slow train from Tokyo to Kyushu. In the photo, the man making the back-to-front V sign (apparently only offensive in the UK and some commonwealth countries), was employed on the Wwoof programme (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). I couldn’t hold back a snigger as the two men talked about their ‘woofing experiences’. I drank a little too much Umeshu (plum wine) that night and did the terrible gaijin mistake of walking out of the toilet wearing the toilet slippers, only noticing twenty minutes later. I blame it on the bonenkai. 

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”Gomen ne gani” (Sorry crab!)

These were the words of a student as she one-by-one snapped the legs off an orange, Echizen crab. I watched with morbid curiosity as the crustacean was pulled, picked and broken to pieces before every part of it was eaten and only the shell and legs were left, licked clean of course. 

Every year the san nen-seis are taught how to eat the famous Echizen crab and today I got to join in with the fishy commotion. To my surprise the lunch room was not only filled with eager students and some expert crab openers, but also a camera crew who were making some sort of film of the event. Knowing I stand out in a room full of Japanese people, I subtly sat myself next to some friendly girls at the back of the room and tried to avoid the camera crew gaze. It worked; temporarily!

For some of the students it was their first time to eat Echizen crab, which is unusual as Echizen is famous nationwide for it’s delicious crab. I admit to have even visited the eccentric Echizen crab museum, sign posted with one of many giant plastic crabs which cling on to crab restaurants, fishmongers and this museum along the Echizen coastline. At the museum I learnt a little about the fishermen whose lives have been reliant on these orange crustaceans for hundreds of years and can now make a good living off these small but expensive seafood. The crabs are called Snow Crab here, probably due to the fact they are only caught in the winter months. The crabs we were dissecting at school came fresh from the port at Mikuni, and were raw as they could be. A yellow tag was tied to a crab’s leg to testify that it was from Echizen, the most sought-after type of crab in Japan. In fact it is the only type of crab presented to the Imperial Family every year!

These Echizen crabs are sold as that equivalent of £66 each!

So this is how to get in to an Echizen crab:

Step 1. Turn the crab upside down.

Step 2. Pull down it’s underside and scoop out all the red eggs (and there’s a lot of them!)

Step 3. Time to get your muscles in action: take both sets of legs and squeeze them together so they break off the crab’s body. Now you can literally see all of the crab’s innards (a mess of orange, green and white mush to an untrained eye like mine!)

Step 5. Break each leg at one end, then use a smaller leg to push the white crab meat through the outer case. If you’re lucky you will get one mouthful of meat per leg!

As soon as I left the safety of my back-row seat the camera crew were on to me and before I knew it I had a white light shining in my face and three men holding various instruments looking expectantly at me. The presenter was a man dressed in a pink yukata, and had a girl no more than ten as his cute side kick for the show. He asked me in Japanese if had I eaten the crab. I gestured that I hadn’t but found the word ‘Tabetai’ (I want to eat!) which made the presenters very excited! So a crab’s body with its meat piled on it was given to me. Choosing the least disgusting piece I could, I cautiously put it into my mouth. It was different from the usual crab meat I’d eaten from a tin in England, and a world away from the ‘crab’ sticks I love in sushi, and the texture was a lot chewier than I’d expected. But when I could politely answer, I said ‘Oishii desu’, meaning delicious, and everyone cheered! The spotlight turned to someone else. Phew!

So how did it really taste? Well like most delicacies, it was an acquired taste. The crunchy eggs got stuck in my teeth, the white meat was more bitter than I’d had before and the gooey orange and green insides were edible but looked disgusting!

Despite the crab’s reputation, some students couldn’t stomach eating the rather disgusting looking creature, so they wanted me to eat theirs for them. I tried my best but could only stomach a couple more mouthfuls. My colleagues were surprised at me as they adored the stuff and would eat it everyday if they could! Another culinary difference comes to light.