So, you’ve been living in Japan, or you’ve made the journey there for a visit, and it’s time to leave. All good things must come to an end, as they say.
As you look down from your overpriced window seat on the airplane, you hear a voice. “You’ll be back,” the coastline whispers as it recedes. “They all come back…”
Until you’re able to make that long-awaited trip back to Japan, there may be some things you realize you miss about the country. Of course, there are the obvious things: the food, the karaoke bars, the cicadas in the summer (okay, I might be the only person who misses that). But there are also the less tangible things that you may come to find yourself truly appreciating long after you’ve left.
Below are 10 things you may find yourself pining for (amongst many) after waving sayonara to Japan and settling back into your own country.
Aretha Franklin said it best: “R-e-s-p-e-c-t, find out what it means to me.” Before I lived in Japan, I never really gave much thought to the meaning of the word respect. I understood the definition of it, of course, but until I lived in Japan, I never truly grasped how deeply the idea of it could go. I never knew that it could be the very backbone of a culture, and I never knew how much I would come to miss it after leaving.
From the bowing to others on a daily basis, to the act of taking off your shoes before entering a household, I noticed over time that so many of Japan’s cultural traditions were borne out of having a regard for others. This is something I don’t see as often in the states. Once I started noticing the little gestures of respect in Japan, they seemed to be everywhere, and I loved finding them every day.
Some of my best memories of Japan are from window seats on trains. I watched cites, villages, and stretches of countryside whiz past, like one, giant flipbook.
It’s important to note that I was able to do that all while being enveloped in a peaceful quiet, save for the occasional low-volume chatter and the rumbling of the train. That’s because, in general, no one talks loudly or makes phone calls when on the train.
Not only are the trains quiet, they are on time to the second (I’m not exaggerating), and they are gloriously clean. Not once have I stepped into a car and recoiled from some mysterious stench that I can’t escape, which happens almost daily on the trains here in New York City.
Riding the train in Japan isn’t without its faults, but now that I’m without it, waxing poetic over it comes with ease.
3.Convenience Stores, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Conbini
Japan is pretty good at using concepts from other countries and perfecting them. Take, for example, the convenience store. Here in the states, convenience stores like 7-11 offer snacks, some healthy(ish) options, cigarettes, and oversized cotton candy-flavored slushies. America!
Now, if you step into a Japanese 7-11, be prepared for an entirely different store. You can buy high-quality, healthy meals and snacks at ridiculously low prices, along with other daily essentials. Some of your food options include delicious, freshly-made sandwiches, fried chicken, bento boxes, fluffy pastries, oden (Japanese hot pot), and, of course, onigiri.
When I first lived in Japan, I was suspicious of the quality of the food. After all, I’d only ever known convenience stores to have cheap, unhealthy snacks and Mountain Dew Big Gulps. But, it only took one trip to my local Lawson, another major convenience chain, to realize that Japan had elevated the western concept to an entirely new level.
I miss being able to find a convenience store on almost every corner, where I could pop in, grab a delicious treat along with an iced or hot drink (or an adult beverage, if the mood called for it), and walk out knowing I had paid for comforting, quality food.
LAWSON, I MISS YOU, I STILL THINK OF YOU.
4. Clean Cities
Let’s suppose you’ve taken your goodies from the convenience store with you, you’ve enjoyed them, and now need to throw away some trash. A garbage bin is nowhere in sight. You may notice that in Japan, it’s rather hard to find a trash can nearby, and this isn’t just your imagination- they’re scarce.
What to do?
In this situation, it would be easiest to take your trash home with you and recycle it there, a common practice.
From a young age, people in Japan are taught to be responsible for their own messes. Children in schools help clean classrooms every day, and assist in running the daily lunches (which includes the cleanup and garbage organization that follows). This builds a sense of responsibility to the larger group, which carries over into the adult years. People then have an innate sense of respect for public spaces, and work to keep it clean for everyone to enjoy.
Walking down streets in NYC makes me want to weep when I think back on the near-spotless streets of Japan. Here, I’m constantly sidestepping litter and all sorts of other gross things I dare not divulge.
I know people warn not to think that the grass is always greener on the other side, but in this case, it’s actually greener. And cleaner.
5. Pride (The Good Kind)
Japan is a nation where artisans perfect their craft over a lifetime of work. Shoes are taken off after entering a home to help keep it clean. People who have what might be considered menial jobs work with enthusiasm.
I don’t want to make a blanket statement, of course- not everyone is the same. But overall, there is a definite sense of pride in what one does there that I don’t see as prominently in the states. Here, workers in fast food restaurants or public transit often look like they’re about five seconds away from throwing themselves off of the nearest roof. And I understand. I’ve worked in those industries, and they are brutal.
But in Japan, there is a dedication to one’s job, to do the best one can with zeal that I find hard to find elsewhere. Seeing that, in turn, boosts my spirits, and makes me want to take pride in whatever it is I do.
Going from a country where cheerful service is found at every turn to a city where scowls and impatience is common can be pretty dispiriting. Can someone buy me a ticket back to Japan, please?
At the end of my time teaching in Japan, my tiny school up in the mountain where I worked held a small ceremony of sorts to send me off. It was very informal, and the kids in the middle school amounted to eight (it was the smallest school in the prefecture). But each got up and said a few kind words about how much they appreciated me being there. Then, the teacher I assisted did the same, immediately started to cry, which made me, in turn, transform into a puddle of American tears.
“Puddle of American Tears” happens to be the name of my autobiography, coming soon.
Whether it’s the appreciation shown to teachers in society in Japan, written thank you notes after receiving a gift, or the omiyage (souvenirs) given to neighbors and co-workers after returning from a trip, the idea of showing one’s appreciation for others is weaved into the culture. It’s not that these concepts don’t exist elsewhere, but I don’t think they exist quite to the scale it does there.
But be careful! You could end up in a thank you gift battle for all eternity if you over-do it with someone. They’ll thank you for your thank you gift with yet another thank you gift and then YOU…well, you see where I’m going with this.
7. Sick Masks
I know this one is sort of coming out of left field, but let me explain.
It is incredibly common for people living in Japan to wear sick masks. Some people are, of course, ill, and don’t want to spread what they have to others. Some wear them to prevent catching anything, and there are a handful of those who like to wear them for the sense of privacy the masks provide, sort of like sunglasses.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been on the train or at work, sitting in a confined space, and someone is coughing and coughing, some barely bothering to cover their mouths. Images of sick masks dance in my head and I throw my hands up to the heavens and ask WHY?
I’m not trying to sick-shame. I just truly wish that wearing sick masks wasn’t such a strange concept in the states. Especially when you have a co-worker that won’t stay home when they’re ill (look, I get it, we all gotta’ make that money), and doesn’t think to wear one.
I think I’ll go the passive-aggressive route and just gift that co-worker a box of them at the next office Secret Santa.
8. Coffee Culture
Remember when I mentioned that Japan has a thing for using concepts from other countries and then perfecting them?
Whether it’s in a hot or cold can from a vending machine or roasted in-shop at a small, independent café, some of the best coffee in the world is to be found in Japan.
Yes, they also have major coffee chains as well, but independent cafes and kissaten (specialty coffee houses) are to be found in abundance.
At those smaller shops, coffee beans are typically roasted in-house and are often served via pour-over or the drip method. The atmosphere is much more relaxed and a lot of the kissaten have a retro feel to them, with vinyl records playing in the background.
Luckily in New York, I’m able to find specialty cafes, but they tend to always be crowded and rarely quiet. Ah, the peace of a kissaten- there’s nothing quite like it.
9. Japanese Household Comforts
Futons, tatami mats, kotatsu, baths…if you’ve ever stayed in Japan, you’re likely to be familiar with all of them. They all make up that “je ne sais quoi” of a Japanese house, that unique feeling that’s hard to describe.
Winters in Japan, especially the farther north you go, can be bitterly cold. To fight it, getting under the kotatsu (a low table with a built-in heat source that is covered with a blanket) is a common method. I practically lived under mine during my winter there, and I loved every second.
Another method, as it is in the west, is to take a hot bath. But modern Japanese baths aren’t like their American counterparts. These babies are deep, and have an electric control panel on the wall that keeps the temperature to your exact liking.
Now that winter is coming, I shed a small tear that I don’t have a kotatsu to hibernate under. Guess it’s time to get that heated blanket!
10. Shrines and Temples
Possibly the most uniquely Japanese things on the list, shrines and temples are places I dearly miss visiting. Even in a busy metropolis like Tokyo, a quiet Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine is more easily found than you might think.
For me, they served as reminders to soak up the nature that surrounded them. In the fall season in Japan, legions of people go leaf-viewing at famous temples, everyone clamoring to catch a glimpse of the fiery red Japanese maple trees that dot the grounds.
While I don’t miss the crowds during busy seasons, I miss sensing the history that is tied to those places. They also sometimes came with gorgeous views of their surroundings, letting you reflect and take a respite from your busy, modern life. It pushes you to reconnect with the quiet of nature. What’s not to love about that?
Now, of course I know that no country is perfect. Japan is not perfect. In fact, I’ve written about some negatives that can come along with life there as a foreigner. But it’s nice to reflect back on the things about Japan that makes the heart swell a little.
Have you left Japan behind and miss it terribly? What do you miss about it? Share in the comments below!