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.

IMG_3700

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.

IMG_3710

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.

IMG_3964

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!

IMG_3818

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.

IMG_3218

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.

IMG_3509

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.

P1010805

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

IMG_3343

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.

IMG_3286

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.

IMG_3533

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. 

IMG_3399

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!

P1070834

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

 

 

A caterpillar in my tights, and other unfortunate events.

Living as an semi-illiterate foreigner in Japan is an illuminating experience. Sometimes I imagine this is what being a child is like in an adult’s world. You have to order food from a picture menu, play charades with the waitress and make assumptions based on past knowledge and experiences. Most of the time it is possible to survive in this environment and, how we say ‘playing the gaijin (foreigner) card’ will excuse even the worst faux pax.

Having lived in Japan for nearly two years, I wish I was not still in the survival-phase, but my Japanese ability sadly lets me down. What I’ve come to realise is that I can’t rely on two years of immersion in Japan not to make mistakes. So, here are a series of unfortunate events and outright life fails that I’m determined to learn from.

1. NEVER HANG WASHING OUTSIDE

Two weeks ago whilst I was teaching a class of very genki first years, I felt an itch on my thigh. I didn’t do anything about it until I got home and took off my tights to find five blotches of red spots that were causing me an intense searing pain. I totally flipped out and told my friend I had shingles and she would probably need to drive me to the hospital that night. But, I had no other symptoms apart from the red spots and from that information, the Internet told me it couldn’t be shingles, or meningitis. I went to bed, wondering in what state I’d wake up in the next day.

The spots had become even more inflamed and painful during the night, so I rushed to school to show the school nurse, but in my panicked state I forgot to get a translator to explain her diagnosis. She took one look at the blotchy bite-like spots and typed something into Google Translate, that came up as ‘hairy woolly bear caterpillar’. Eugh! She was telling me that a baby caterpillar had somehow got into my tights, either it was born there, or had crawled in when I had left them out to dry. The thing had spent the day rolling around in my tights, getting it’s spikes stuck in my leg. I was, and still am, completely grossed out. But at least it wasn’t shingles.

download

IMG_3161

On her advice, I went to a pharmacy to get some steroid cream to ease the pain. The cream the pharmacist recommend me had some cute cartoons on the box. I really didn’t recognise the potentially lethal mukade centipede (second from the left) on the packaging! This is a prime example of how Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture is everywhere.

I don’t know for sure what it was that got in my tights, but one thing’s for sure, I won’t hang my washing outside again, in case another caterpillar gets in them. I was also warned not to leave any of my clothes on my tatami matting, in fear of mites will crawl into any other of my undergarments.

2. DO NOT PARK ON BACK ROADS IN JAPAN

Festivals in Japan make everyone just a bit crazy. Every man, woman and their dogs goes to the same place at the same time, causing chaotic parking situations. It’s amazing how Japanese people can forget all manners when they are fighting over a car parking spot, like the woman who stood in the only spot free, talking on her phone and shaking her hand at me as I tried to pull into the spot. Not the politest nation after all then.

On this occasion I was in Fukui City for a hanami party, only to find a ‘full’ sign for the car park. I didn’t know another car park nearby, so I decided to join many other cars parked around a small neighbourhood park. I left my car between two other cars, neither of which had paid for a parking ticket.

IMG_3124

My worst fear hit me when I returned to my car. There was a huge yellow parking ticket on it. The first thing I did was rip it off, wishing it was never there. If only parking tickets worked like that.

I drove home angry at why I got a parking ticket and the cars around me didn’t. Well a parking ticket can’t be that much, can they?

Unfortunately, in Japan they can. When the police officer told me how much I’d have to pay, I couldn’t believe my ears. It was ¥18,000 (£105, $177). And the reason why? Because I was parked within 5 meters of a junction, even though it was a small side road meeting an even smaller road. Why aren’t there lines on roads where you can’t park? Or a clear no-parking sign? This makes no sense to me.

So the next day my supervisor and I went to pay the bill at the intimidating-looking police station. It’s a block concrete building that is so dark inside it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. I was led to a cornered off area, where the walls were covered with wanted convict posters, and a police officer filled in the paperwork for my own crime; ignorance. And because I didn’t have my hanko (signature stamp on me), I had to give my fingerprint. I felt like a criminal who had been wrongly accused of a crime. I just didn’t know the parking rules! I paid a high price for that lesson.

3. ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA CASH

For some reason, cash and credit cards are only accepted in large department stores in Japan, so you have to pay for cash for most things. This is an outright pain, especially as ATMs ‘close’ after 8pm at night! The only semi-plausible theory I’ve heard for this, is that it’s to prevent salary men spending more money than their wife allows them. Anyway, I have been caught out on this many of time, the worst time being when I’d just reached the register with a trolley full of food, only to find I had no money in my purse (probably because I’d just paid the parking ticket). So I had to drive two kilometres to the nearest ATM to get money out. Thankfully, it was open at that time of day.

4. DOUBLE CHECK THE MEANING BEFORE FREAKING OUT

A gynaecologist visit in my books is always a terrifying event, but this fear is tripled if you think that the doctor you will see a non-English speaking man.

II was keeping myself pretty calm that day; I had parked in the proper car park, I had money in my purse and I knew where to go in the hospital. All was swell until I checked in at the reception and the lady said the female English-speaking doctor wasn’t there, ‘inai’. I obviously didn’t listen hard enough to the rest of what she said, but assumed she’d told me that I would see another doctor. I went in the waiting room to find that the only other gynaecologist there was a middle-aged male doctor, and I assumed he didn’t speak English.

At that point I freaked out. My phone was nearly dead so I had no way to translate key words for the doctor. I was literally shaking in my shoes at the thought of the awkward moments that were to come. For someone who has swum with whale sharks, jumped off waterfalls and spoken in front of assemblies full of students, I think I am a reasonably courageous person. Yet for those thirty minutes in the waiting room dissolved me to a jittery mess.

When I was finally called into the  doctor’s room, I walked there slowly, still considering to make a run for it. But who was sitting there but the friendly, English-speaking female doctor I had an appointment with! I let out a deep sigh. The receptionist must have meant, ‘She isn’t here now, but she’ll be coming later’. I wished I had saved myself the panic-attack by double-checking what she said. Another hard lesson to learn.

5. DO NOT TRAVEL IN GOLDEN WEEK

As it’s my last few months in Japan, I wanted to travel to the Japanese Alps to see the famous snow monkeys and the beautiful castle in Matsumoto. I had spent many hours planning a three-day trip, as you can tell by the hand drawn map below. Yet, on the day before we were about to leave, my friends talked to our Japanese friends about the traffic in Golden Week. Everyone we spoke to said we shouldn’t go because we could get stuck in horrendous traffic jams. Golden Week is practically the only time of year that Japanese people have time to travel, and considering that there are 126 million Japanese people, a top tourist destination such as Nagano, is almost certainly going to be crowded. So we called off the trip at the last-minute. It doesn’t look like I’ll see the snow monkeys after all, but at least I don’t have traffic-jam nightmares to retell.

IMG_3154

The plan we didn’t do, in fear of Golden Week traffic.

6. DO NOT ADMIT TO BEING NON-AMERICAN

It was at my first taiko drumming concert that this dreadful moment came to be. We were at an old people’s home and were entertaining them for an hour with our newly-found drumming skills, and on request of our teacher, a couple of songs. After struggling through Country Roads and Hello Goodbye, the five Americans were asked to sing their national anthem, and I stepped back and enjoyed their singing. Then, out-of-the-blue, our taiko sensei asked for the British national anthem! He knew I was the only Brit there, but this didn’t seem to stop him putting me on the spot. I tried to refuse, but knew there was no way out of it. So, I stepped forward and belted out the first verse of ‘God save the Queen’ by myself, unaccompanied. I didn’t know I knew all the words, but what I learnt through the Girl Guides had not been forgotten. I did surprise myself with this, but it is something I don’t want to repeat, ever.

The taiko group I play in.

The Iwada-cho Taiko group including; 4 Americans, 2 Japanese, 1 South African and 1 British player.

7. ALWAYS READ THE PACKET

Sometimes I’m a bit happy-go-lucky in the supermarket and put things in my trolley without reading the label. I have mistaken a yogurt drink for milk, and accidentally tried making icing sugar with corn flour. My latest blunder was mistaking garlic slices for sliced almonds. Naturally, it was only when I had sprinkled them on my ice-cream sundae and taken a bite, that I realised my mistake. There is a reason garlic ice-cream has not been invented!

P1060952

Enjoying the Azaleas in Nishiyama Park as part of my B-plan for Golden Week.

It seems that I have grown older in Japan, but not wiser. It doesn’t help that Japan is a minefield for making stupid mistakes out of ignorant or spontaneous decisions, as well as being more or less illiterate. I just hope that when I return to the UK,reverse culture shock doesn’t make me a foreigner in my own country. Will I be slurping noodles in Wagamama’s and bowing to my future boss? Perhaps so.

Beppu to Mt. Aso

The more you travel in Japan, the more you realise how much this country has to offer, and Kyushu has a lot to offer. Japan does tourism in its own way; lots of omiyage souvenir shops, clearly marked photo opportunities and a cute character yuru-kyara for just about everything. Every town, island and prefecture has a unique food speciality and a top ‘100’ thing to do or place to see. Japanese people don’t get much time to travel at all, most people don’t use their nenkyu holiday days, so when they are free on the 15 national holidays a year, everywhere is busy, and so many people choose not to brave the crowds and stay at home. I find this consequence from the work-culture frustratingly sad. In fact, travel-keen ALTs who live and travel in Japan for two years will probably see more of Japan, than their Japanese co-workers will ever see. That’s why, after every trip I do a fun slideshow of where I’ve been and tell Japanese students about their own country, a little ironic, hey! My father and I were definitely doing tourism our own way. From Khaosan Spa Hostel, we rode our bikes up to see the pools of ‘hell’. You know you’re getting close to the hot springs when you see steam rising from drain pipes and chimneys coming from allotment plots! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Beppu Jigoku ‘hells’ the most popular thing to see in Beppu, and there are eight of them. We only saw Umi Jigoku, the turquoise coloured ‘sea hell’ that have been bubbling away for thousands of years. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   We skipped seeing the other hells, but cycled down the road of hot springs and tried some jigoku-mushi steamed food and a public foot bath. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You can tell by my face how hot it was!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This one was a little more relaxing.

After cycling up the hill to the hells, we were both glad we changed our plan to cycle up to Mt. Aso. Instead we boarded the Trans-Kyushu Limited Express, a rustic two-carriage red train that chugs its way up to the volcanic crater in the centre of Kyushu through wooden valleys and over raging rivers. As we climbed higher and higher, and the rain got heavier and heavier. Until there were no views, and it was raining sideways but the time we reached Aso Station. IMG_2681 The weather was a good excuse to relax, something the pair of us aren’t very good at. Dad experienced a sento bath for the first time, and came out glowing and without any complaints (of nudity, not knowing what to do or being spoken to by random Japanese men). I’d say he passed the ‘culture shock’ test right then and there. Feeling refreshed, we enjoyed some beers and good company at Aso Base Hostel, one of the cleanest, most well-equipped, beautifully decorated hostels I’ve ever been to. Seriously, they have a coffee maker, sell craft beers and have a kotatsu! Win, win, win. IMG_2733IMG_2735 IMG_2734 IMG_2732