Julia, outbound to Japan

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For the future outbounds to Japan, and for those who are curious enough, today I will write about average life for me here in Japan. As a disclaimer: This is purely my own experience here, and everyone should know and understand that a student’s life on exchange is always unique to only them, so everything I write here certainly will not apply directly to any other student, present or future, only truly to myself. So take my reflections and explanations with that in mind, also knowing that behaviors and trends change almost constantly, so it is very likely that a some of my observations will be outdated by the time any of you readers actually go to Japan (or not, whichever).

So, I will begin with some of the first things that surprised me when I first arrived, stuff that I hadn’t heard of before in my pre-exchange research. Stuff that I hadn’t thought of studying about my host country, because everyone already knows that Japanese people take off their shoes before they enter a house. First, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road. If you’re anything like me, this would be the kind of thing that you would just assume you wouldn’t need to know about, but I almost had a meltdown on the way to my first host family’s house from the airport. Their roads are also only just as big for a compact car to fit, but that doesn’t stop the Japanese from driving at face-melting speeds up and down mountains. Ah yes, the mountains. Allow me to assure you, unless you live in a huge, leveled city, you can and will get violently carsick from being almost literally thrown around in the backseat of someone driving up or down a mountain side, while also questioning whether or not they may be blindfolded and attempting to use echolocation to drive. In Japan, seatbelts are not only a necessity, but also a luxury you will come to truly appreciate.

Something I also did an extremely poor job of researching before arriving was Japanese cuisine. Now, I think it’s safe to assume that most people can think of only ramen and sushi when pondering Japanese foods. First of all, no. No, they’re not. Sure, they eat a dish similar to what you consider to be ramen sometimes, but sushi as it is in America doesn’t not exist in Japan. The Japanese eat many foods that I didn’t even know were edible in the first place. I’ll name some of the more common foods eaten here. For starters, Japanese people eat a bowl of rice with every meal, unless they’re eating noodles. For breakfast, a “nattou” rice bowl is very common. Nattou is a food that is entirely unique to south and eastern Asia, and you’ll soon understand why. The nattou dish is made of fermented soybeans, which are known for their pungent (eyebrow burning) smell and glue like texture. It is almost always mixed with soy sauce and yellow mustard to “kill the smell”, and dumped on a bowl of rice, for “added nutrition”. Now, as to why they eat this… food(?) is a complete mystery to me. Being around it for several months has made me somewhat resistant to the smell, but what really gets to me is that they slurp it up, not unlike how an American child eats spaghetti. Upon arriving in Japan, you will come to find that the Japanese are incredibly loud eaters, and often do things that would be considered appalling in average American table manners. They hold their plates up to their faces, so as to slurp more accurately, and are not afraid to talk with their mouths full of rice. They also can slurp literally anything, to the point where it’s almost somewhat impressive. For a mid-meal snack, they eat “onigiri”, which is normally just a ball of plain white rice, sometimes wrapped in seaweed. Again, not my ideal image of a “snack” food, but this one I easily got used to, because it’s a common sight in Japanese anime and comic books. For lunch, Japanese students make very elaborate “bentou” boxes, of rice, some form of protein, eggs, and pickled vegetables. This is something a few of you might be familiar with, but sometimes the contents of these boxes can seem like culinary artwork. However, of course, I am far too lazy to have a Master Chef session in the morning before school, so I still just settle for a plain peanut butter sandwich. Explaining dinner foods is where things get complicated. This is normally the meal where noodles might be eaten. Popular noodle dishes are “yakisoba”, thin spaghetti-like wheat noodles in oyster sauce served cold, “udon”, thick earthworm-like egg noodles in various savory broths, and the famous “ramen”, which, in Japan, is made of long wavy noodles, usually in a “miso” or soy sauce broth, topped with slices of eggs, pork, and bamboo shoots, and al so may have chopped leeks, bean sprouts, nattou, seaweed, or pink fish cakes. Another popular dinner food, one that might be good eating for some Americans, is “yakiniku”, which is slices of meat, chicken, or pork and vegetables on a hibachi table. This is a dish I actually enjoy, but for most people, all seems well at first, but then you start to wonder, where exactly is this meat from? A question you quickly learn should not be asked out loud, else you want to lose your appetite. Common meats eaten in yakiniku, other than slices of normally eaten areas, are tongue, intestine, liver, gizzard, diaphragm, tripe, tail meat, and heart. Bon appétit. Tofu is also a common dinner staple in Japan. It’s almost always eaten plain, and sometimes cold. It can also be deep fried, but with the fried “skin” removed and put into either hot or cold soup. Sometimes this same “skin” in used to wrap small balls of rice and is eaten like sushi. I’m not a fan of this particular form of tofu, and to me it tastes like what I imagine eating a wet toilet paper roll tastes like, but I do know some other foreigners here that enjoy it. The Japanese also almost never drink plain water, only “ocha” or “matcha”, which are bitter green and brown leaf teas, respectively. These are the “basic” drinks of Japan, meaning if you go to someone’s house or a restaurant, they will only ask if you which kind of tea you want, and not bring a glass of water. I found this incredibly difficult to cope with for a long time, almost as difficult as it was for my hosts to comprehend why, on a hot day with no air conditioning, I could possibly ask for a glass of cold water and not for a cup of hot tea? Totally unheard of.

Now, I’ll start with my surprises at school. I’m sure at least some of you know that Asian students clean the school every day after the last class, but I’m also sure that most of you don’t know exactly how much of the school we clean. Every single room in the school is swept, dusted, and wiped down daily, sometimes by students who don’t even use said classroom. They also clean the bathrooms, wipe the floors with rags (think Spirited Away), and sort the trash. All in their school uniforms, and it usually takes around 15 minutes to do. And allow me to rant a bit about my school uniform. The boy’s uniform is mostly the same throughout Japan; a white polo shirt, a black button up jacket, and long black pants. Girl’s uniforms are different for almost every school, and I just so happened to go to the school with the most matronly style I’d thought possible, coming in right behind Mother Theresa herself. Everything is made almost two sizes too big, with a meter long navy skirt that appears to be made out of theater drapes, and a frumpy white polo that makes even the tiniest of girls look like Violet Beauregard from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now, I am not even remotely close to being considered a “small” size, so I went to my first day of school feeling roughly the size of the moon.

Also, if I remember correctly, it’s a common stereotype that Japanese people have bad dental hygiene. While yes, sometimes they appear to need the assistance of some braces (but what nationality of people doesn’t have this problem?), they by no means have “bad teeth”. After every meal, almost every Japanese person I know spends at least 5 minutes brushing their teeth. I had a host grandmother who would actually brush hers for around 20 minutes, and use two different tooth brushes at the same time. This is something I found quite comical, of course, but the Japanese are very serious about dental hygiene, and many of my host mothers wouldn’t let me go to bed or to school without brushing my teeth first. 

Japanese people also listen to a surprising amount of music from the Beatles. I hear John Lennon’s “Imagine” much more than I had ever heard before in America. Yes, the “Miku” vocaloids (animated pop singers) are somewhat popular, but only with younger girls and sometimes with middle aged men. Similar to how My Little Pony is in America, I guess. However, Japanese pop music (J-POP) is incredibly popular with almost all ages. Most American people couldn’t name a single J-POP band, and allow me to shed some light on why that is, in my opinion. In short, J-POP band names are by far the most ridiculous, downright cringe-worthy uses of English that I have ever seen, not just in Japan either. Popular bands include “GReeeeN”, “SMAP” (just say it out loud), “Bump of Chicken”, “fripSide”, and the “Kinki Kids” (again, out loud), to name just a few. Now imagine trying to talk to a native English spe aker about J-POP, and telling them that your favorite band is called “Bump of Chicken”. Now you know why you don’t see much of J-POP outside of Asia.

There’s so much more that I want to write about, but I’m afraid of there being a word count limit on the journal page. I guess I’ll go try and see. Hopefully I’ll have a new journal up soon.