REFLECTING ON JAPAN

Our time in Japan has come to an end.

We could have stayed longer, but factors played out that a different choice was the right one for our family. Leaving a country is always a bittersweet experience, there are things you are looking forward to in your next destination while you know there are things that you will miss from the previous country. You also get into a groove in a new country after 2 years …. that groove is over.

In no particular order are the things I will miss about Tokyo:

Safety and cleanliness:  A society that is homogeneous with very little immigration means that they have 3,000 years of shared tradition and values which drive their society. The downside is that it leads to rigidity, hierarchy and significant innovation constraints. On the plus side, it makes Japan truly unique. There is no garbage because people care about their society and are too proud of Japan to litter. You can walk a back street at 2:30am and be completely safe, while a 4 year old child can walk to school with zero issues. That is truly unique.

The people: Our western society is so fast paced and all about the push. I will admit to being too abrupt, irritable or not polite enough. In Japan, as a whole, that is not the case. Sure the subways get crowded but over the last two years I have come to respect the little things like the politeness of a bow. We as westerners have not lost all of that and not everyone is rude (insert Canadians saying “excuse me” joke here), but in Japan it is the way that they all live. I heard a story the other day where a fellow was in Japan teaching English and he happened to mention to a few of the women he was teaching that he found Tokyo cold. The next day they showed up with extra blankets and a warm jacket for him. The sense of community, sharing and “team” is alive and well in Japan.

The food and drink:  If you like food, you need to go to Japan. Good food on every corner, with more drink choices than you can imagine. There is no where like it. Odd to think that Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any country in the world and Canada, sadly barren.

January and February:  Why? Because if you want snow you can jump on a train and be at the ski hill in 90 minutes. Otherwise, my heavy winter jacket did not come out once in over 2 years. Now that is the type of winter that I love – tennis in January.

Amazon.jp and Japan Post:  I know, miss a postal system? Japan Post is amazing. Order something on Amazon on Saturday morning at 8am (and you can order EVERYTHING on Amazon) and see it arrive that same evening. A post man working on a Saturday night? Now that is customer service.

The 5pm song:  Every evening in Tokyo at 5pm huge loudspeakers play a song. I have been told it is so that children know it is dinner time. How quaint.

Vertical parking:  Why? I don’t know. But I always found it interesting and Roppongi Towers has to have the most advanced parking system in the world.

The wonderful, oddity of Japan:  As I have said before, living in Japan is like living on Mars. You could never feel more different (As a side note, I have heard Japanese say the same thing about when they are in North America). They do so many things differently than us and it is always interesting to stumble upon new things. A simple example; they have these sinks in the washrooms in our office and I could never figure out what they are for.

Sink

Turns out they are for brushing your teeth and the button on the left (blue swirl) is a special flushing button that swishes water all around the bowl in a circular motion to clean the sink. And of course, don’t get me started on Japan’s greatest invention – the Toto. I had 3 installed into my house in Canada instantly – and yes there is a Toto Canada, and yes they sell their products on Amazon.

Japanese English:  I love to read interpretations. I snapped this one recently because of the gargling insert. I also like the detailed instructions – it feels like mom wrote it – “don’t forget to wash under your fingernails” (smile)

Infectious disease

 

Facemasks:  This might seem like an odd one, but I like facemasks. To understand the Japanese facemask culture, you need to understand how they think.

To the Japanese, facemasks are about being polite. If you have a cold, you wear one so that you will not get anyone else sick. If you have a baby, you will wear one so that you don’t bring home any germs. To see someone wearing a facemask in western society is an oddity, in Japan it is incredibly common – people wear them everywhere. On a few occasions I have worn them when ill in the office, I have worn them at home to try not to spread a cold when I get off a plane and I love wearing them when on a plane (for hydration reasons – a great way to reduce your chance of getting a cold or sore throat).

A reflection on their community focused culture.

Last but certainly not least, Japanese customer service:  Customer service in Japan is THE BAR. There is nothing that compares and it is consistent, people take pride in their work and bend over backwards to service the customer. The primary driver for this is that the Japanese people expect excellent service and are therefore willing to pay higher prices – something “Lowest price every day” mentality in North America has destroyed – it is our consumer choice.

Good-bye Japan. You are very, very unique in this world.

LUNCH

I will miss trying different foods. Tokyo is for the bold, in this case squid – with a little mushroom.

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I am quickly approaching the point where I will try anything. As my wife always taught, you have to try something 3 times before you are allowed to say you do not like it.

They were good, although I liked the tuna better.

SHRINE FOOD, TOKYO

As previously mentioned, a few weeks ago we headed to a shrine sale/market on a Saturday morning. In one area they were serving food. I love Japanese food. I love that Japanese “fast food” means that someone is cooking it quickly, from scratch, instead of mcCooking it.

A few shots. This fellow was quite artfully keeping his ashes out of my food (smile).

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These folks were cooking a very popular dish that you see at the baseball fields – octopus balls with a nice squirt of Japanese mayonnaise on-top.

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I went for the noodles.

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I am afraid that I am becoming a Japanese food bigot and will not be able to step into Canada’s version of a restaurant .. Moxie’s, Jack Astors .. without a sense of despair. I will definitely have to seek out those Canadian ‘chef owned’ restaurants actively.

Reflecting on the difference, it seems to come down to economics. More and more, Canadian restaurants are owned by business people – not chefs. It is bought as a business, not as a extension of a passion and everything from building layout to food delivery is controlled by HQ.

Very different from Japan where those holes in the wall are still family owned with the husband busy cooking while the wife runs the business. Sure, there are fast food chains, but they are a small fraction of the ecosystem.

Guess that is why Tokyo has more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world – by a huge margin. If you come to Tokyo, explore the food. You will not be disappointed.

AFTER DINNER SEEDS, INDIA

I had never experienced this before; the tradition of an after meal palate cleanse.

At our first (and probably best) lunch during our stay in India they brought out this serving set filled with rock candy, anise seeds and fennel. Mix them in your hand and pop in your mouth.

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Surprisingly refreshing and a wonderful tradition.

It must be said, the food in India was spectacular. I miss it very much. The problem is that as tourists we had to be incredibly careful. Their food has microbes and spices that we simply are not use to resulting in the infamous Delhi Belly, which we did not avoid even though our guide did everything he could to ensure we ate at respectable restaurants.

We so desperately wanted to try to the street drinks and foods, but refrained.

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SAKE

Narda has been taking cooking courses in Japan and become friends with a sake expert.

Personally, unlike many Japan expats who embrace the “after work” culture, alcohol does not make up a big part of our lives. But I have started to really enjoy sake and sparkling sake, especially during the 40C Tokyo summer.

A favourite is an all natural sparkling sake, Suzune Sparkling Sake, best described in this review:

Several years ago in Japan, I tasted a sparkling sake. At the time I was saying to my dinner partner who happens to be an owner of a sake brewery that I thought sparkling sakes were sort of like wine coolers – a novelty to get people to drink sake. Well, I wasn’t far off base, as I will touch upon in a second. The first sip of Ichinokura’s “Suzune” was an eye-opening experience. I was completely taken aback by the refreshingly light and flavorful sake. What impressed me most was the fact that it was very “Champagne” like but in an honest to goodness sake sense. It was so unique that I found myself trying as many sparkling sakes as possible on that trip and subsequent visits. I immediately approached my exporting contacts in Japan and urged them to start sending sparkling sakes to the US, because I felt that they would speak to a large portion of established and new sake drinkers.

The problem is that Suzune is a limited run and many sakes do not have the same shelf life as wine. In Japan you can pick it up at Meida-ya (A higher end grocery store) for Y750 or Amazon.jp, and if you are lucky, you can find it in North America for about 4X that cost.

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We will enjoy it while we are here.

JAPANESE FOOD

 

It has been a little over 3 months since we moved to Japan and I have noticed that my food preferences are changing. I still crave sugar treats (the Dutchman in me), but crave “bready” items less and have zero cravings for fast food of any type. I have also shed 8lbs. and it isn’t coming back despite my trying to eat a lot.

That is simply because of the food options here. When I was in the US a few weeks ago I had to grab a quick lunch and grabbed a sub.

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I just sat there looking at it with zero desire to dig in. Lots of bread, big portion and even though it was from a “fresh baked” shop, I simply didn’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, I sought out bacon and eggs, but the bready food that is such a staple had very little appeal.

Give me sushi, I could eat it every day and my heart will say thanks. Just looking around, that is why you see so many thin – old Japanese people – even if they are crazy for not wearing bike helmets (smile).