You might think you know about Japan but if it’s simply sushi, samurai and Sony to you then think again. Here are 6 reasons you won’t find in any guidebook about why it’s great to live and work in Japan.
1. You’ll Get Treated Like A Celebrity.
Japan is a very homogeneous society with only 1.5% of the population not being native born Japanese people, so most people you meet won’t have much experience with non-Japanese people. Rather than causing problems though this means you’ll get treated like a celeb. Strangers, especially kids, will want you to sign your autograph and take photos with them and lots of neighbours will want to take the new foreigner out to show off their own culture.
If you live outside the big cities then everyone in your neighbourhood is likely to know you by name and don’t be surprised if you receive lots of gifts ranging from extra vegetables from their garden to bottles of fancy booze or even just a lot of time and help getting accommodated to living in Japan. It can be very surreal but don’t worry, this attention usually fades over time as people get to know you. Still, it’s fun to feel like a star for those first few months.
2. You Can Live Life 24/7.
The majority of Japanese people don’t leave the office until 9, 10 or even 11pm at night. This thankfully doesn’t usually apply to TEFL teachers but it means that in the big cities life carries on 24/7. Need a new sofa at 3 in the morning, need to pay your bills or just have the munchies? Chances are there is a department or convenience store open somewhere that can help you out.
In fact the only thing that does close early is the transport with train services normally ending at 11pm and the first train the next morning not starting until 6. This means that if you decide to go out to a club then your best bet is probably to stay out all night and head home the next day. Fortunately lots of places like karaoke bars or bowling alleys charge special discounted overnight rates that can make partying the whole night through until the next day actually work out cheaper than going out for a few hours in the evening.
The variety of leisure activities you can do at night also outdoes anything in Europe or America. As well as the normal distractions of eating, drinking and dancing you can sing at karaoke, pet some cats in a cat café, read some Japanese comics in a manga café, play the night away in a gaming arcade or have a hot relaxing bath in an onsen (hot spring).
3. You’ll Try Amazing New Foods.
Japan boasts some of the most diverse, delicious and delectable food in the whole world. You probably know all about sushi (pickled rice) and sashimi (raw fish) and you won’t find better anywhere else but have you ever tried okonomiyaki (a kind of a cross between an omelette and a pizza), takoyaki (octopus dumplings), shabu-shabu (a sharing hot pot filled with soup that you use to lightly cook vegetables and very thin slices of beef or pork) or Oden (eggs, mountain potatoes, daikon radish and lots of different kinds of fish cakes stewed in a soy broth)? The variety of food in Japan is astonishing, and even better, nearly everywhere you go has a local specialty so you’ll always be discovering new and even more delicious dishes no matter how long you stay.
Plus, possibly the biggest secret that outsiders don’t know about are nomihodai or all you can drink restaurants. You pay a set price per person per hour and then can drink as much as you like within that time. Shhh, keep that one a secret.
And, in addition to the traditional treats, Japan puts its own delicious spin on other cuisines; like Kare Pan (a sort of crispy donut filled with curry) or Tonkatsu (tempura battered deep fried pork cutlets served with a Japanese version of Worcestershire sauce).
4. You Can Join In Fun Festivals.
Japan loves a matsuri (festival) and is always looking for any excuse to have a party. Most festivals are free to enter and they’re so common that you can probably find something going on most weekends.
Festivals range in size from small, local affairs put on by villages where a spectacular float containing a Kami (God) gets taken out for his exercise to city wide firework displays that last for hours.
Then there are the particularly famous festivals that draw in tourists from all over to visit. Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is a parade featuring gorgeous, ornate floats. Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka has hundreds of boats decorated with lanterns floating down the river. Yuki Matsuri in Sapporo has about a dozen enormous snow sculptures and hundreds of smaller ice sculptures lining the streets. There is even a naked man festival in Konomiya where thousands of barely clad men parade through the streets to the temple for the chance to receive a bundle of holy sticks.
Whilst any tourist can simply visit the major festivals living in Japan means you get the chance to take part. So if you’ve ever fancied fighting in the nude for some sticks or taking god for a walk here is your chance. It’s an opportunity to experience something you’ll keep with you for your whole life.
5. You’ll Get Back To Nature.
In Tokyo or Osaka it is easy to think that Japan is one massive cityscape with nothing but concrete, glass and steel as far as the eye can see. In reality through, because of the shape of the islands, you’re rarely more than an hour from the mountains in one direction or the beach in the other.
There’s a nice mix of nature in Japan to suit all tastes. If you just fancy a day trip then there are plenty of well trod hiking trails that are lined with the odd vending machine to quench your thirst. If you’re more of an explorer than there are still vast unspoilt cedar forests for you to get lost in and filled with interesting wildlife; wild boar, tanooki (raccoon dogs) and even Japanese macaques.
Some of the particularly beautiful natural spots that won’t make the major guidebooks include; travel through the snow road cut into the Hokkoda Mountains which in springtime are covered in a pristine white layer of powder; take a hike along the elevated walkways that cross the Ayamedaira National Park and appreciate the stark beauty of the wetlands; go wind surfing on the enormous blue waters of Lake Biwa; play in the mini-desert of the Tottori sand dunes; join the throngs in watching the maple leaves in Miyajima turn a breathtaking shade of scarlet and hug an 1,800 year old cedar in the misty and ancient feeling Mount Haku National Park.
6. You Can Time Travel.
In 1603 Japan closed its borders to the rest of the world and for the next 200 years its technology and culture remained largely unchanged until, in 1868, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy forcibly opened the borders delivering overnight two centuries worth of changes and new technologies.
The result of this is that instead of a gradual change there is a marked line between the past and the present and even today wooden temples that are hundreds of years old stand side by side with modern sky scrapers.
It’s easy to time travel in Japan, walk anywhere and you’re soon likely to find an old shrine hidden in the corner of even the busiest metropolis. But it’s more than just buildings and artefacts. Rituals and festivals keep history alive. Traditional dress is still worn on special occasions and traditional crafts are still practised. Head to Arashiyama and you can still see cormorant fishing. On Sado island they still use barrel boats because the shape and manoeuvrability makes them well suited to fishing along that coast. Walk the streets of Gion and expect to see Geisha rushing to appointments, walking, living symbols of Japan’s past.
And these aren’t mere tourist attractions but things you can join in too. Come autumn time you might just be invited to help your neighbours make mochi (rice cakes) the traditional way, by whacking wet rice with a great big wooden mallet.
Of course this article can only skim the surface of all the secrets and wonders waiting for you to discover for yourself. Maybe you’ve been to Japan and think we’ve forgotten one of the best reasons to live there, in which case please tell us in the comments below. The only way to really get to know Japan is to go and experience it and maybe you’ll discover the next hidden treasure. Don’t wait, start your adventure today by talking to one of our TEFL Experts.
image attributation; Illustration by tofugu.com, “Shibuya Crossing at Night” by Tony Northrup, “Okonomoiyaki,” “Oden,” “Kare Pan,” “Matsuri,” “Hanabi” and “Cormorant Fishing” are used under a Wikimedia Commons license. all other images by Richard Adam Halls.