6 Things That are Great About Japan

I’m feeling fairly positive today despite having a bloody terrible week. So let’s examine some of the wonderful things about my country.

1. The Wildlife

This is one of those things I love about Japan that came as a complete surprise to me. You probably know that the southern coast of Japan is basically one huge metropolis. From Tokyo down to Hiroshima it’s all city, with no real gaps in between.

However while Japan is famous for it’s metropolises it’s easy to lose sight of why it is so densely urbanised. There is very little space where people can live and build and nearly all of it has already been re-claimed. This leaves an awful lot of space that is simply left over to nature. It’s easy to forget this when you’re surrounded on all sides by grey concrete stretching up to block the sun but it takes about an hour’s walk for me to get from my flat in a built up town and major transport link to a forest up a mountain.

Because of this there is a lot of large native wildlife in Japan. Far more than what I am used to in Britain. I have seen more large birds of prey in the year I have lived here than I have ever seen in my entire life before. I sit by a pond filled with turtles, everyday when I wait for the bus (which is also where I twice saw a snake), there are far more butterflies here than Britain, there are fearless little sparrows that bother you whenever you sit down and there are entrancing dragonflies and deeply irritating cicadas.

In fact let’s not get started on the bugs because if I do this quickly won’t be a “things I like about Japan” entry. Suffice it to say the butterflies and dragonflies are lovely and leave it there.

And these aren’t just limited to the forests but are a day to day part of life. However what does live in the forest are some truly amazing animals, wild boars, poisonous snakes, tanuki (sort of raccoon dogs) and bears. Bears! I never knew Japan had bears.

Mario here, dressed as a tanuki.

Living in Britain it is easy to forget about the natural world as bar trees and pigeons it hardly ever intrudes upon the everyday of life. British people may decry me for this because Britain ahs some of the greenest cities of any developed country. However the point is not so much the flowers and the grass but the animals. There aren’t really any animals jostling for space with people in Britain, bar birds, domesticated animals and bugs. Here exotic and interesting animals are something I see everyday and they’re one of the things I will miss most when I leave Japan.

2. Unicycles

Yes, unicycles. Yes, the bikes with only one wheel.

For whatever reason (and frankly I couldn’t even begin to guess why) unicycles are massively more popular in Japan than they are in pretty much every other country in the world.

Primary school kids in Japan are taught how to ride unicycles. In fact I think some schools have unicycles that the students can practice on. I know that when I visited a primary school once to teach an English lesson I spotted a rack of about 40 identical unicycles in one of the halls. That’s more unicycles than I’ve ever seen in one place before. That is more unicycles than really should ever be in one place. It looks deeply, deeply wrong, like stepping into a parallel universe that never invented the bike.

And they actually ride them for transport too. We’ve all seen circus performers prat about on the really tall ones, leaning backwards and making the wheel slide forwards and then doing the opposite. Japanese kids don’t do that. Instead they zoom past me like a tiny cheetah on their way to the combini (convenience store). It’s a truly mystifying sight; scores of children zipping about like mosquitoes, eating ice cream with their free hands and suddenly at adult height, despite being 5.

And the main thought it prompts is, why? Why unicycles? They ride bikes too, bikes are sensible, they get you places faster and you don’t fall off. Is space at such a premium in Japan that they can’t store a second wheel?

3. Okonimyaki

I’ve mentioned my deep and abiding love for ramen a coupler of times on this site and I stand by my position. Ramen is some kind of magic food that, despite being nobody’s absolute favourite meal, everyone in the world could happily eat every single day. Anyone who claims otherwise is just being contrary for the sake of it. What I haven’t mentioned much is another Japanese concoction that gives me a deep and satisfying pleasure, okonomiyaki.

The name comes from “okonomi2 meaning “what you want” and “yaki” a ubiquitous Japanese word that is typically translated to mean fry.

It doesn’t really, it just means cooked. Take takoyaki for example, the name implies that you’d be eating some kind of fried octopus. what it actually is, is a dumpling with a piece of octopus inside.

Anyway, okonomiyaki means “what you like fried” and as the name implies it’s a sort of bring everything you have left over and cook it up kind of meal. It’s sort of like a cross between a pizza and an omelette. The chef prepares a sort of omelette batter with flour and shredded cabbage. He frys this and then adds whatever toppings you asked for, usually in my case cheese, bacon and mochi (rice cake) because I am trying to toughen up my arteries with endurance training.

There are a million ways to cook and serve it and many famous variations (such as Hiroshima-yaki which features thin soba noodles and is prepared in layers) but the way most common in Kansai, where I live, is for the chef to mix up and prepare the batter, cook it, add the toppings and then bring it out to a hot plate where you are seated. The okonimyaki continues to cook on the hotplate whilst you add okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed, katsuobushi (tuna flakes), chilli powder and any other toppings that come to mind. Then you set about slicing it up, transfer a piece to a plate, eat it and then repeat.

As I understand it in most areas outside of Kansai you have to mix up and cook your own batter in the restaurant. Sod that, if I’m going to pay for the privilege of cooking my own dinner it better by all you can eat and it better be principally meat.

Okonomiyaki originates from the tail end of World War 2 (or the Pacific War as it is known here) when the rice harvest, already depleted because of all the young drafted men, was largely used for military purposes and much food was rationed. Deprived of their main staple food Japanese people in Osaka and the surrounding area started making pancakes with what they did have (eggs, cabbage and flour) and then covering it in anything that had a bit more flavour than cabbage and eggs. In fact enterprising women who had lost family in the war used to sell the basic pancake at the roadside cheap for labourers to buy for lunch.

The last time I went to eat okonomiyaki something rather odd happened to me. My girlfriend and I were enjoying a heart cloggingly thick and delicious okonomiyaki in our local restaurant. The only other people in there was a man in his 30’s or 40’s and this man’s daughter. They finished up their dinner and the daughter left and this man came up over and awkwardly tried to start a conversation with Fran and I. So far so normal, one of the negatives of being a foreigner in Japan is that occasionally very weird people will come up and try to talk to you. We politely answered his questions as to where we were from and then let the conversation drop so we could get back to our dinner.

When it came time to pay the waiter tried to charge us for the man and his daughter’s meal.

……

I was immediately very, very annoyed.

According to the waiter the man had said that we had agreed to pay for his dinner tonight since he didn’t have any cash on him. He would then come back and pay for the dinner the next day and then we could get our money back from the restaurant.

No, we said, we agreed to do no such thing.

Oh really, it’s just that Japanese people do this kind of thing all the time and we would eventually get our money back and…..

No.

Please.

If you carry on like this then we’re going to walk out of here without paying for either meal.

Eventually, after much cajoling from Fran and much angry glowering from me the waiter relented. I do feel kind of sorry for the waiter. He is obviously a really trusting and nice guy to believe the man and I do hope the man came back the next and paid for dinner. I highly doubt it though, and the waiter probably had the cost of two people’s dinner coming out of his paycheck. However sorry as I felt for him what an idiot. At the very least when he got this story from the man he could have asked us if that was okay. We’d have said no and then he’d have been able to get the money from the odd man.

4. Fruit

The fruit in Japan is incredible.

I don’t know how much the difference would apply to a South African, an American or an Aussie but in comparison with British fruit Japanese fruit is the nectar of the gods. It’s so much juicier, tastier, fresher and more refreshing.

I got my first taste of how bloody amazing Japanese fruit is on my first morning in Japan. The JET programme had arranged for new arrivals to stay in a very up market hotel in Tokyo. The breakfast the next morning was an entirely free buffet. I grabbed myself a cooked breakfast and, spying some pineapple, I added that to a plate as a dessert. Pineapple is my favourite fruit in the entire world. Much like ramen I am incapable of turning down the offer of pineapple. This also extends to pineapple flavoured things like sweets and drinks. I love it unconditionally* and so I was pleased to get some for free.

Words cannot describe the taste epiphany that occurred to me that day. It was a road to Damascus moment, well, road to Del Monte anyway, for I never realized fruit could taste so good.

For the next couple of days I gorged myself on the pineapple and melon marveling that I could live 21 years and never eat a melon this nice. However there was a melancholy edge to my gluttony, for I had sadly assumed that the fruit was this good because the hotel was very expensive and must order pineapple of a particularly high quality.

Happily I was wrong, fruit here is uniformly better than back home.

This is because, generally, it isn’t transported when it is waiting to ripen, and if it is it travels a much shorter distance than fruit to Britain. There are fruits here that are roughly the same or inferior to the equivalent in Britain, strawberries, oranges, lemons and limes; but they are completely unimportant to me compared to how good the melons, grapefruits and pineapples are.

*this is entirely untrue because there are two conditions of my love for pineapples. Firstly I have to be able to afford it and secondly I know that I can only eat a limited amount of it before my tongue becomes an agonising monstrosity for the rest of the day.

5. Arcades

I like computer games but I am not a computer/video games nerd/geek.

Allow me to clarify that.

I have zero issue with the label “geek” nor do I have any issues with using it as a term to describe myself. I’m just realistically stating a fact that compared to most of the people who have an interest in computer games I barely qualify as even a minor enthusiast. So when I say I like computer games I don’t really think I like then much more than your average British bloke of my age.

There is an exception to this rule though; I have a particular fondness for old games as most new computer games leave me completely flat. First person shooters do nothing for me, nor do modern adventure games (which feel more like poorly written stories than games), racing games are more simulations than games as is nearly every sports game ever produced and don’t get me started on the state of modern platformers. What I like are computer games that first and foremost are GAMES! That realise that setting out to simulate reality is a folly for an electronic medium and instead embrace their abstract nature and focus upon the experience they offer being first and foremost, fun.

It appears that the vast majority of console owners in Britain and America disagree with me. However in Japan the situation is very different. Here games are still principally about silly and abstract fun, normally with an Italian plumber in a land of mushrooms.

Moreover Japan has a similar love affair with “retro” gaming. There are shops in any of the major Japanese cities selling older consoles and vast collections of older games. It is the easiest country in the world to get a SNES and 10 or 20 games, probably for less than 20 pounds and happily entertain yourself for the next 4 or 5 years! If, like me, you are bloody terrible at computer games anyway.

And Japan never fell out of love with that most visible symbol of the older gaming culture, arcades. I can’t speak for America but I know that in Britain computer game arcades don’t really exist anymore. So called “Amusements” still proliferate at the sea side but these are mostly filled with shove ha’penny machines, slots, fruit machines and other cheap gambling diversions. Actual games, where the only goal is to have fun, are few and far between.

Not so in my adopted land. In Sannomiya alone I can think of about 10 gaming arcades most of which are quite close to each other. These still have a lot floor space given over to gambling machines (pachinko, horse racing, etc) and a vast swathe of space given over to crane machines but they make up for it by having a lot of actual honest to god games too.

Now you might be thinking to yourself, Adam, there’s a reason gaming arcades are a thing of that past. It’s because arcades were only popular because cabinets were vastly more powerful machines than home consoles so to play a good computer game you needed to go to an arcade. Nowadays consoles can equal and generally exceed the power of cabinets so why pay all that money for something you can get at home?

Well for several reasons my friends, several reasons.

Firstly, arcades just appeal to me. There is something about them that is relatively unique, the notion of a space given over to nothing more than having fun. They’re playgrounds for adults basically, a space where the only possible thing to do is enjoy yourself or leave. This is why I like the gambling style places much less. They have a sort of goal (make money) whereas arcades have no purpose other than to have fun.

Secondly, although arcade cabinets can’t compete with home consoles on a power basis anymore they can compete on the design of the cabinet and how you play the game. You can play racing games with actual steering wheels and chairs, music games with replica instruments (admittedly you can do this at home but it’ll cost you and how likely are you to buy a replica shamisen, taiko drum or drum kit?), surfing games on surfboards, rowing games on row boats, horse riding games on imitation horses! I don’t care how advanced consoles get you are never going to be pretending to ride a horse in the comfort of your home in any sort of console game.

Hell, there’s even one relatively popular game that simulates riding in the cockpit of a gundam.

Thirdly arcades are great for filling in a few minutes of time. Consoles are obviously the better place to play a long form story led RPG or to have some mates round and spend an entire evening trying to best each other at Mario kart. However arcades can fill in those 5 or 10 minutes when you’re waiting for a friend to meet you, or a film to start at the cinema, or for the beer garden to open. Just having them around makes getting through a normal course of evening’s events much more varied and interesting.

So now that I’ve rabbited on about how much I like them for long enough what are my favourite games to play?

Well I’ll start with my least favourite, the arcade version of Mario Kart. Despite Mario Kart being generally one of my favourite computer games ever (and Mario Kart Double Dash being basically how I spent University) I despise the Arcade version. This is partly because the game was farmed out to Namco from Nintendo and the level and weapon design is vastly inferior to what I’ve come to expect from this series but it is mostly because my girlfriend always beats me. Always! It is deeply annoying.


(I got this off the internet so i have no idea who this bloke is)

My favourite is easily the “taiko drumming game”. Taiko is a traditional form of Japanese drumming that I have mentioned on this sight before. Basically you have a single large drum placed on it’s side and 2 thick wooden sticks. Rythms are beat out on the drum itself and on the sides of the drum. In the game you beat out a rhythm to popular J–pop songs, anime theme tunes and computer game themes. There is little in this life more purely joyful than trying to play the theme to “Super Mario Bros” on a plastic replica of an ancient Japanese instrument.

6. Toilets

We all know about the Japanese technologically advanced toilets that clean your arse, play soothing music and even automatically lift the lid up if you’re approaching. These contraptions are ridiculous in every possible way and are rightly ridiculed. As well as being the ultimate symbol of the amount of conspicuous consumption in this country they are absolutely horrible for the environment.

There are however, three toilet innovations that I am prepared to give a pass to.

1. My own toilet, observe.

See that little sink there, when I flush the toilet the water from the pipe passes through the tap and into the sink before it drains into the bowl. This means that I use less water washing my hands because I don’t have to go to the sink to do so.

This would be a rare example of a Japanese toilet helping the environment. However it would be a very good example of the Japanese approach to design.

Design in this country is king. There is an insane amount of thought gone into how to improve every single aspect of every object you own and sue in daily life. Design is so worshipped here that people collect tiny replica miniatures of famous chair designs.

I’ll say that again. Entirely sane people collect tiny replicas of FAMOUS DESIGNER CHAIRS!

Yet, oddly, this makes not a lick of difference to the average person because Japanese people are so very keen on tradition. The cooking utensils, rooms, ways of cleaning and to a certain extent the clothes have not changed significantly in Japan for hundreds of years. Japanese people love a “right” way to do things and despite really liking good design they very rarely later anything traditionally Japanese. Case in point many places still use the squatting hole in the ground traditional Japanese toilet.

Yet, when you introduce something new to Japan, something we in the west have taken for granted for some time, they immediately take a good long hard look at it and re-design it so it is much more efficient and useful. My toilet is a good case in point. An incredibly simple innovation that saves the environment and which will never be adopted in Britain because we don’t care about good design.

2. The fluttering bird thing.

This gets a pass because it makes me giggle for a very specific reason.

It seems that Japanese women in public restrooms don’t like other people in the restroom to hear them, um, using it. Research discovered that a lot of women repeatedly flushed the toilet in order to hide the sound of them, um, yeah. This was obviously a very wasteful and inconvenient thing to do so some bright spark invented this.

It’s a little box that when an arm is waved in front of it makes a noise like bird song. Effectively hiding the sound of the, um.

The very specific reason that this makes me giggle is that I have a female friend (who shall remain nameless) who once explained to me that even in a cubicle she can’t pee if anyone else is in the toilet because she is so mortified that they might hear her. I found out about these boxes on Japan Probe and immediately cracked up thinking about what my friend’s reaction to these would be.

3. The toilet at my school.

It has a heated seat.

A heated seat.

For my arse, in winter, when it is cold. A heated seat.

I know this is terribly wasteful but it isn’t my toilet and it’s not like I’m going to convince Kocho sensei to install a new one. Besides do you have any idea how nice a heated toilet seat is? That my friends is true luxury.

BTW whilst I was looking for pictures of Pacman I found this.

How awesome is that?!

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2 comments
  1. Adam said:

    Thanks very much anonymous. sorry it has been so long since my last post.

    Like

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