Unexpected Lessons from Japan

Today is bright, breezy and clear – a perfect spring day. I’m stuck inside, but I’d like to believe, somewhat wistfully, that someone else out there is enjoying the day on my behalf.

This morning I got to thinking about all the weird and unexpected things Japan has taught me so far. For all the inherent strangeness that is inevitable when living in a foreign culture, there are a lot of universals. Here’s a brief list. I might add to it later.

1) Cheese makes everything better.

This was probably the most unexpected thing I learned in Japan, which is weird, because I am a die-hard cheese lover (It’s blue and whiffy? So much the better! Let’s crack out the Danish blue feta!) and Japan is not exactly renowned for its cheese-making prowess. In fact, most Japanese supermarkets only bother to stock the blandest of grated mozzarellas, with the occasional bland Camembert.

And yet… people here add cheese to all kinds of things. Cheese in curry. Camembert pudding. Deep-fried cheese in pastry. And it’s good. The first time I saw cheese in curry I was like… seriously, people? Seriously? But somehow it all just magically works. It works so well that I’m having to seriously cut down on the stuff for fear of turning into the Michelin man.

2) Cheese makes everything better (part 2).

This is cheese in a different sense. The cheesy sense. Schmaltz. Excessive cutesy-ness. Most Westerners, at least, are initially amused in a horrified sort of way by Japan’s excessive cuteness. Everything has a mascot. My cellphone company, Softbank, has an adorable white dog called O-tō-san. My bankbook is a cute pink thing with a character called Sazae-san on it, from a long-running comic strip. At the moment they’re working on the roads and the barrier poles are supported by cute plastic elephants, ducks and something else that I always forget. I’ve seen construction cranes painted like giraffes and sponges shaped like Scottie dogs. Even the Japanese Self-Defense Force has a mascot – Prince Pickles – although frankly he’s not all that cute.

When you first arrive, the cuteness feels like a visual assault. But after a while it just seems… nice. The world isn’t always a nice place and it’s nice to feel like someone has made some effort to make it a little cuter, a little more endearing. Nowadays when I get instruction brochures without cartoons, I’m like, what the hell is this rubbish?

3) Every day is a fancy occasion if you want it to be.

This might be a little contentious. When I first arrived, my mind was a little blown by how Japanese women in particular seemed to dress up really fancy to do the simplest of things. As someone who is unlikely to ever don a pair of false eyelashes to go grocery shopping, I found this a little… excessive. But here’s the thing – Japanese people don’t really get to dress up a lot. For your average South African, there are certain occasions on which one would “scrub up nicely”, as it were – weddings, fancy dates, birthday parties. In Japan, wedding attendees would almost always wear either a black dress or a kimono. Dating would require you to wear something really nice – probably what your average Westerner would wear to a wedding. As a result of this lack of free-dressing fancy occasions (this is my theory, anyway!) Japanese people sometimes dress really nicely for no good reason.

Now, I’m a fan of jeans and flipflops. But I’ve noticed over time that the general trend has been for my clothing to be a little better thought-out, and I’ve discovered I love make-up (not that I wear anything too exciting…) Taking a bit of pride in your appearance can be fun, although there are still days when I saunter to the grocery store in flipflops and whatever ratty old T-shirt I first lay my hands on 🙂

4) Sometimes it’s OK to wear neon yellow.

Back in my younger days, my idea of colour co-ordination was, “If everything is black, it’s OK.” Japanese people are wonderful about putting together the most random colours or patterns – and somehow it works. It reminds me of something my mum used to say when I’d get hissy about colour co-ordination. “Red and green are clashing colours,” she would point out, “but roses are still beautiful.” Thanks Mom. I finally figured it out 🙂

5) Convenience stores are AWESOME.

Look, there is practically nothing you can’t do at a Japanese convenience store, or konbini. Want to make a purchase from an online store but don’t have a credit card? Pay at the konbini! In the mood for booze and dried squid at two in the morning? Konbini run! Don’t feel like cooking this evening? Konbini pasta! Concert tickets? Porn mags? Haagen-Dasz? Neck tie? Clean underwear? Surgical mask? Nail polish remover? Hamburger? Konbini!

And of course, their best feature – free (usually clean and nice) toilets. I usually buy something to justify using the loo, but you really don’t need to. The loos are not “customers only”. If you’re on the road and really need to go, the konbini is your port of call.

This being said, I find I hardly ever go there anymore – the temptation to buy useless stuff is just too great and I find I save a lot of money by avoiding them.

This is my rather short list, so far, of my unexpected lessons from Japan. What are some of yours?

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2 thoughts on “Unexpected Lessons from Japan

  1. I’d never thought about it before but yes, cheese does make everything better. I’m also wary of #3 as I am constantly feeling underdressed here. Usually I’d wish that I were a man, but even men here take great care in their appearance.

    There are a few unexpected lessons that I have learnt in Japan. The most unexpected being that
    there is actually something quite therapeutic about sharing a bath with a group of naked strangers.

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