Written by Colette Hosten
When I moved to Japan, I was filled with excitement but there were some things that I was also keen to avoid. However, after living here for two years, many things that first seemed daunting or unpleasant have become staples in my life. Here are 5 things that I learned to love in Japan.
I had an impression of Roppongi as a place with aggressive solicitors, exorbitant bar tabs and petty crime. And I often explore by myself so I was determined to steer clear of this Tokyo neighborhood. But then one weekend I joined a pub crawl in Roppongi and it completely changed my perspective. Yes, there were solicitors and the drinks weren’t exactly cheap, but the busy streets were fun, appealing and, most importantly, safe. Also, there’s something for everyone in Roppongi, from the upscale and crowded to the dim and secluded. The neighborhood is connected to Shibuya by frequent buses and has several train stations. Now I often stay in Roppongi because of its entertainment options and convenient location.
As one who enjoys nightlife, you’d think izakayas would be my favorite from the start. But I was always nervous about entering these traditional Japanese bars. Can I wear shoes here? Does the menu have pictures? I was caught between not wanting to offend and not wanting to be embarrassed. But then my Japanese friends started introducing me to their favorite izakayas and the fear of the unknown started to dissipate. Instead I began to enjoy cheap beer, wide-ranging menus, and friendly and accommodating staff. I even have my own favorite haunts now. I love exploring the range of izakaya styles and the Japanese delicacies they specialize in.
There is little that can prepare a “westerner” for a manga café. Taking the name literally, I had thought it was a place to read comics and drink coffee. I don’t (can’t) read manga so I was never interested. But I found out it is so much more. I still probably don’t know know everything that a manga café offers. Manga cafés serve refreshments, offer cubicles for private computer use (with futons for a slightly cramped nap) and some even have showers. They are open 24 hours a day, are very affordable and are usually quiet and peaceful. It is a specific but vital comfort to the weary traveler. I have gone to manga cafés to nap when my hotel checkout is at 10:00 a.m. but my bus home isn’t until 10:00 p.m. I have used it as respite from a harsh summer or winter day. And I have enjoyed the unlimited soft drink and ice cream bar, especially on my budget trips! It is really a practical refuge for anyone looking for a break in the city.
- Long distance buses
I know, I know, who comes to the land of the bullet train and talks about the buses? But as a high school teacher, the shinkansen is often beyond my budget. Plus, with my books and music, I survive long hours in transit easily. Nonetheless, for a long time it never occurred to me to take the bus. In my experience, long distance buses are very stuffy, vastly unreliable and unbelievably slow. However, my experience in Japan has been wholly impressive. The buses are punctual, clean, spacious (overnight buses are equipped for passengers to lie back and sleep in privacy) and have amenities such as charging ports and Wi-Fi. But what completely sold me is that early tickets are sold at significant discounts. A round trip bus ticket cost almost the same as one way by regular train. And the trips take the same length of time because it does not stop regularly as on the regular JR train. The buses in Japan offer convenience and economy without sacrificing comfort and time.
I don’t want to sound like I don’t enjoy gift-giving, but omiyage seemed to come with such pressure that I resented the obligation. The courtesy and thoughtfulness that define this tradition felt forced and fake to me. But that was my cynicism talking. People never casually or thoughtlessly offer omiyage, and they accept omiyage with such gratitude for the gesture that it is impossible to not love that kind consideration. I remain amazed by how thoroughly respectful it is. If I bring omiyage for the teachers in my school, I have to bring enough even for those who I have never spoken to. Where I’m from, we reserve such treatment for only our near and dear friends, but I like that the baseline interaction here is one of appreciation and gratitude. Now I happily select omiyage for my coworkers and friends and I savor the kindness and sincerity of these practices
Japan has provided a wealth of opportunities to grow. This list is an example of how even the tiniest prejudices and insecurities can hamper your journey, and how small gestures of friendship and trust can open your world.