Help me cultivate a genuine interest in Japan!
July 23, 2008 6:16 PM   Subscribe

What makes Japan so great?

So I've come across the opportunity to apply for a grant to teach English in Japan for a year or two after university... the problem, though, is that I don't really know anything about Japan in terms of language or culture... So I ask you, dear Metafilter, what makes Japan so great? Have you ever been? What struck you most, coming from a Western (or non-western! Let's not make assumptions!) culture? This is a big, meaty question, I know, but if anyone could regale me with anecdotes or point me in the direction of some interesting resources I would appreciate it! At the moment, all that comes to mind are crazy gameshows and Rule 34...
posted by ThomThomThomThom to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
No links, but here's a personal anecdote. I've been studying Japanese on and off for 8 years now. I've lived there for a summer. I often watch anime and movies from Japan. Simply put, to me, Japan is unique in a way no other country is. The culture is so dramatically different from Western culture; one can get caught up in studying/indulging in their history, their legends, their food and lifestyle, their cities and countrysides, etc. It's a wonderful, magical, beautiful country, full of charm and personality.

It's expensive too, so if you can find any way to subsidize your experience (as I did - free room and board with a family friend), take that opportunity. It will be a wonderful experience. Personally, I would love nothing more than to drop everything to go back for a bit.
posted by Meagan at 6:30 PM on July 23, 2008

They isolated themselves from much of the Western world for a few hundred years before the mid-1800s.
posted by rhizome at 6:38 PM on July 23, 2008

I found Japan to be a big culture shock (and I come from a similar culture!! Europe was heaven in comparison) but there were quite a number of good things that helped me.

* Their generousity. Seriously. Most generous, helpful, giving people EVER. You need a meal, they'll give you gourmet 5-course.

* The FOOD. Go past the sushi and sashimi (though that's good too). Their cuisine is AWESOME.

* Their willingness to be silly. Despite what it may seem they don't take themselves TOO seriously, at least with foreigners. They're willing to let their guard down to learn new things.
posted by divabat at 6:58 PM on July 23, 2008

I think the OP is asking, what's interesting about Japan, not, what makes it a great country or culture. Which is a pretty broad question, and I'm hoping he'll stop back and clarify or narrow things down.

Anyway. My own experience is a 10-day trip 15 years ago. A few things I thought were great about Japan:
--Food. You can find 'Western" food, but skip it and immerse yourself in the local fare.
--Temples and gardens. Every one is different and unique.
--Bullet trains. The only way to travel.
--Bowing. After you get used to doing it, shaking hands seems strange.
--People. Get to know them and ask them to show you around to experience the real Japan, and to get insights into places and customs.
--Kyoto. A very cool city; don't miss the Imperial Palace there.
--Food. Worth mentioning twice. And on preview, agreeing with divabat that there's a lot more than sushi. In fact, I never had sushi while in Japan, but I had about 30 totally different meals.
posted by beagle at 7:02 PM on July 23, 2008

Every country is interesting in its own ways, and embodies its own set of surprises and contradictions and different ways of looking at the world, but coming from a Western culture, as you apparently do, Japan's will be especially piquant.

You've got FutureCity Tokyo surrounded by agricultural prefectures where some people use outhouses. For that matter, you've got gleaming developments like Roppongi Hills cheek-by-jowl with prewar shacks. You've got a language that, even after 20 years of working as a translator, I'm still grappling with. You've a culture that produced Zen Buddhism and maid cafes in Akihabara.

I have to say, I spent a few months living in the sticks, but the rest of my time was in Tokyo. I found it hard (for a number of reasons) to be enthusiastic about living in the countryside, but every day was an opportunity for discovery in Tokyo. But you know, even in the dumpy country town I lived in, the coffeeshop down the street was run by a middle-aged lady into skydiving, and it's the only coffeeshop I've ever been in where they brew all the coffee using the vacuum method.
posted by adamrice at 7:20 PM on July 23, 2008

It's not great. It's all about crazy game shows and Johnny's idol groups and Studio Ghibli and Pokemon and video games and electronics. And earthquakes. There was a huge one just last night up north. Lots of random killings seemingly on the rise, too, it feels like. There was another incident a couple of days ago, which is still just a little short of two months from the random mass killing by a lunatic in the Akihabara electronic district in June. So, not as safe as people make it out to be.

Come on, your question is way too broad to answer. If you don't have any specific interest in a country, why apply for a job there? You'll just end up being another frustrated English teacher in a country that's not necessarily too kind to its foreign residents. Being a tourist is very different from living here for an extended period of time.

I'm Japanese and live in Tokyo. I was born here and love this huge city, but it's not for everybody. Tokyo is so different from the rest of Japan that it's ridiculous to try to even make a comparison. If you do decide to go for this job, decide if you want to be based in a city like Tokyo (or Osaka, the other big city, also radically different in culture from Tokyo) where the people won't take a second look at you and where all the excitement is, or in a rural town in the mountains where people will still stare unabashedly at you in amazement (if you don't look Asian, that is) when you walk down the street, but will probably eventually treat you with friendliness and respect if you do the same for them.

On preview, adamrice said what I was basically trying to say, only in a much nicer way. I'm sorry if I sound nasty, maybe it's the heat. Oh, god, the heat! And humidity!
posted by misozaki at 7:29 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why develop an interest at all? You either are interested to some degree or not, if you are then take the opportunity. What YOU make of Japan (or any other country, place for that matter) is up to you. Everyone I have met here in Tokyo or in the countryside (up North) where I used to live has their own version of Japan, it's just what you are sensitized to. I f you are a foodie it will be the food and drink (and please try Japanese versions of western dishes they are often amazing) if you are into anime, games etc. then you are amply catered for...Just come with an open mind and take Japan as you find it, and learn about the country and people and probably most of all about yourself
Well that all sounds a bit pompous -

I think it boils down to - if you are interested, come to Japan, if not, don't
But you do sound interested so come and find your own Japan
And, yes it is hot isn't it!! Lovely!!
posted by AndyM825 at 8:20 PM on July 23, 2008

Both my husband and I have lived in Japan. The first time I went as an exchange student there were lots of little things that pleasantly surprised me, and in completely different ways than what I was expecting.

The good things:

- You can get whole meals from convenience stores. Hot water is even provided when buying bowls of dried noodles.
- The selection of cleverly designed stationery and office supplies is astounding. There are even magazines devoted to the best stuff.
- Sumo is surprisingly fun to watch once you figure out who is who. Plus, once you get the subtleties you'll be able to talk to almost any Japanese man about something.
- Snacks are easy to find and usually individually sized. It makes packing for picnics easy.
- There are a lot of traditional arts that are still around and alive. It's easy to find artists who are willing to talk to you about their craft and tell you what makes it special.
- You can go to a town called Seki and watch someone make a traditional samurai sword.
- Terrible sandwiches are outweighed by delicious onigiri.
- You don't need an appointment to see a doctor.
- You'll probably qualify for national health care. I once had a wisdom tooth pulled for about 2000 yen ($20), the drugs were included.
- It is possible to be a woman alone in public and not get harassed.
- It is possible to be a woman and drunk in public and not get harassed.
- One beautiful phrase - nomihodai - 'all you can drink'
- Yakiniku, Sukiyaki and Shabu-Shabu are fantastic and hard to find outside of Japan.
- Karaoke is so much better in a private room, no listening to drunk strangers at the bar.
- Once you get over the nudity thing, public baths are great. The water feels good and you'll get a chance to meet new people. Hanging out with your friends while naked is not usually encouraged in the US.
- If you ever wanted to flash a busload of people, go to Hashishita onsen get nude and and wave to the people on the bridge
- There is nothing like a Japanese festival. I managed to attend both the Naked Festival and Penis Festival, and it is unlikely I will forget either.
- I love festival food. I miss takoyaki, taiyaki and chocolate bananas especially.
- Hot sweet potatoes and mochi wrapped in seaweed are fantastic winter snacks.
- I liked hearing the warabi mochi song every summer.
- Just because you will be an exotic foreigner people will want to talk to you and buy you stuff. This can also be a negative. Once someone in Aomori bought me and my husband fish guts and insisted it was a local delicacy.
- The ocean is almost always nearby.
- Hokkaido is one of the prettiest places on the planet.
- Nagano is also not bad.
- There are lots of real samurai castles. I'm especially fond of Inuyama.
- Sleeping on the floor is better than you might think, especially when you're drunk.
- Product design is tops in this country.
- Apples are really big and sweet. Carrots are extra thick.
- The carp at Ise are the size of seals and the water is so clear that it looks like they're floating in air.
- MOS burger is so much better than McDonald's. You can even get both onion rings and fries mixed together with your burger.
- If you've ever wanted to try whale this is your chance.
- There is a surprising amount of delicious gelato available in urban areas.
- Rice fields are pretty during the day and are filled with amorous frogs at night.
- The subways are clean and run on time.
- Most places have a special dish that is best only in that town/city.
- 100 yen shops are filled with great stuff. You'll be able to use them to furnish your entire kitchen.
- If you're ever looking for a book at Kinokuniya the store computer will even print out a little map so that there is no doubt which shelf has your book.
- Ferries are clean on the inside and sometimes feature snack bars.
- There are cake stores everywhere. I've never eaten so much fancy cake in my life.
- Bread stores have unusual, but delicious bread.
- If you've had a good day with your friends it's always possible to document it with purikura.
- Okonomiyaki, especially in Hiroshima is totally worth more than the ~400 yen you will pay for it.
- If you stay at a Ryokan your food will usually be included. You usually won't know what you're eating, but most of it will be good anyway.
- You will get really good at taking your shoes on and off quickly
- The Black Cat delivery service is a Godsend when moving anywhere. They'll also take your luggage and transport it to Narita Airport if you don't want to bother with big bags on the train. This works even if you are in another city and it only costs about $20 for a big suitcase. Pickup is in the terminal and you just wheel it over to the check-in counter.
posted by Alison at 8:21 PM on July 23, 2008 [16 favorites]

This book gave me a lot of insight into and appreciation of Japanese culture.
posted by harmfulray at 8:45 PM on July 23, 2008

- It is possible to be a woman alone in public and not get harassed.
- It is possible to be a woman and drunk in public and not get harassed.

Not true. Not true at all. I mean, I suppose it's possible, just like winning the lottery is possible.

Anyway, Japan has great food, as long as you stay away from 'family restaurants' w/ plastic food in the windows, and cheap alcohol. It's also great if you're a smoker because cigarettes are cheap and you can smoke almost everywhere. If you really want to come to Japan, start learning Japanese. It's pretty easy at first, then all of sudden it gets horrible and difficult.

I'm not really happy w/ Japan today. Everything in my kitchen and bathroom was smashed by the earthquake last night and I am not looking forward to the cleanup.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:54 PM on July 23, 2008

Knife-wielding psychotic nutjobs aside, Japan is very safe.
A kind of safe that people from North America may find confusing at first.
People are not reflexively defensive here. Nobody is walking around with an air of aggression or pent-up rage just under the surface. You don't have to watch what you say, where you go, or how you go about your business.
Even in a huge metropolis like Tokyo, the average person goes about their business downright cheerfully. People just generally mind their own business, and let others do the same. Doesn't matter if it is 3pm or 3am, same deal. Doesn't matter if you're out in the suburbs or smack in the middle of a downtown area.
This, to me, is one of the major draws of living here.
posted by nightchrome at 9:07 PM on July 23, 2008

To be honest, I think I can give you a better answer if you clarify your question. Could you maybe explain your reasons for considering Japan versus another foreign country for your grant. What are you expecting to get from the experience? I can list my impressions of Japan (I've lived there on and off for the past five years), but I think I can give you more meaningful information if you can elaborate on your question.
posted by mixed greens at 9:08 PM on July 23, 2008

One thing you "get" as a Westerner, or "gaijin," by being in Japan for some length of time, that you get no other way, is the tremendous power of the group. Belonging to groups is so important for the mental and physical health of a Japanese individual, that it is nearly impossible to suggest an equivalent experience to Westerners. Maybe this comes as one manifestation of ubiquitous conformity; this is, after all, a country where, for many years, there was no interest in putting eye color or hair color information in physical descriptions on documents like police reports and driver's licenses (now, pictures and international standards for ID are governing that choice).

In spring, you see school classes of 7 and 8 year old children, dressed in their distinctive jumpers, beanie hats and backpacks, trooping in orderly single file lines, through train stations, waiting calmly, together, on day long class trips, 20 or 25 polite little carbon copies of one another, with a single teacher. And you see bus loads of old people, all taking off their robes and wading into the sea together, as a group, on day trip outings from retirement homes, who are as much members of a "class" as they were 70 years before, in their school uniforms. In between, the Japanese live their lives largely in groups, where their allegiance and contributions to the order of the group mean far more to them, than their individual ideas, or goals. In return for their loyalty however, individual Japanese find a kind of acceptance and support in groups, guaranteed to them in their weakest moments, such as Westerners sometimes long to have, but rarely find.

I spent a lot of time in Osaka, less in Tokyo and Yokohama, but I also went often to Kyoto, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Gifu, and Hongu on business. A couple of times, to Hokaido, particularly Sapporo and Shari. A few times to Okinawa. Rural Japan is as different from urban Japan as Alabama is from Chicago. You learn a lot in the parts of Japan where the roads are intentionally not so wide, that you'd never understand sticking to Tokyo, but for gaijin, such trips can be tough to arrange, and sometimes hard to enjoy.

Try staying in a traditional ryokan [link is not the place I'll describe, but just a description of a modern version of these kind of small, traditional guest houses], in a small village near Beppu, on Kyushu, as a gaijin. The one I wanted to visit has been operated by the same families for about 400 years, but is hard to book. It has no Web page, nor does it need one. In 1994, it did not have a phone number (you made and got reservations by letter), because the people that patronize it do not want telephones while they are there, any more than the people who visited it in 1720 did. I found out about it, only through long time business contacts, who eventually vouched for me to the owners, personally. Only after I went there did I understand what I'd asked, and what catering to me, a gaijin, represented to them. It was a lovely, magical place, with a tiny, perfect garden complete with a teahouse, a small separate bathhouse, and lovely traditional appointments, right down to the "nightingale floor" on the porch outside my room. But no one spoke English, and it was clear, that had I not pressed to be there, and had good contacts, I wouldn't have been welcomed. As it was, I agreed to visit the garden only at specific hours (so as to not embarrass other guests by my presence), and to dine in my room. I was called for my bath in the evenings, and I wasn't really surprised to find myself bathing alone. I wouldn't have been shocked to learn that they felt it necessary to burn the bedroll and disinfect the tub I used, after I left. I'm sure that, as much as I appreciated getting to stay there, it cost my business contacts a few big favors, and maybe some serious cash, under the table. My bill there, for a 2 night weekend, was heart stopping. But the sake was incredible, I ate 2 kinds of rice I've never seen or eaten since, along with many little dishes of fish and seafood I could hardly identify (of the most delicious taste), and indescribably wonderful miso soup. The hours I spent in that tiny, peaceful garden remain in my memory as the closest approximation of perfection this earth can supply for a human life. And in the end, my shoes were polished beautifully, the flowers in my room were fresh each time I entered it, I never saw a speck of dust on any lacquered surface, and I went to sleep each night to the chirp of lucky crickets (and not a damn recording or a cricket machine). Worth every single yen it cost, and every bit of xenophobic angst I may have caused, thank you.

So, go. Climb Mt. Fuji, with all the others, one foot in front of the other. Ride the bullet trains, and sit in a hot spring in Hokkaido. Get used to earthquakes, and plates of perfect plastic food in every window of most restaurants. Learn to cover your mouth not just ehen you cough, but when you laugh, and figure out how to use a squat toilet (a bit harder to do than learning to eat soup in the Japanese way). Smoke a Mild Seven or two, on my account. Get plastered on good sake (tokutei meishōshu (特定名称酒)). Don't miss Kyoto in cherry blossom season, or the pearl divers at Mikimoto Pearl Island. Shop for ukiyo-e, and see some kabuki.

As a gaijin, Japan will push you away, and invite you back; it will welcome you, and tease you. You will never be able to assimilate, and yet, you need never stop trying.
posted by paulsc at 9:28 PM on July 23, 2008 [7 favorites]

This is a huuuge question. I am presently living in Japan (and have been for over 2 years), teaching English and am NOT in Tokyo or any other remotely major city. I live in Hokkaido and yes there was an earthquake last night (woke me up as I was seconds from sleep!).

I have met many other teachers on the same program as me (the JET Program(me)) that were in no way acquainted with Japan before their arrival at Narita Airport. Many of them came with little or no experience with the language and minimal knowledge about the culture outside of the usual sushi/manga/anime/cosplay. The best part about Japan is that you don't have to know anything about it before coming because the people you meet while you are here will be more than excited to teach you all about it. In my experience, many Japanese kids are totally uninterested in the more traditional aspects of the culture (tea ceremony, kimono, shodo, etc.) so when someone comes along who truly knows nothing of the culture and is actually interested to learn about it, they jump all over it.

But what makes Japan a wonderful place to experience is really up to you. Some are interested by traditional Japan and some by the crazy modernity. Others are interested in how the two intersect; often yielding odd and totally illogical results (stove heaters as opposed to central heating? a land of internet where few have computers?). Then there are the little things such as dollar stores, used shops, gatcha-gatcha machines and bicycles. Oh, and of course the food. But above all else, and this has been mentioned, the generosity, kindness, politeness (please learn some of this, America) and wackiness of people that you meet. I can't possibly the list the number of beautiful things, delicious treats and amazing favors that have been done for me.

There is, of course, a downside which I won't go into much. Japan can sometimes reveal a quite racist and xenophobic side but I've seen it so few times that it almost doesn't need to be mentioned. If you do move to a small town though, and this was mentioned before, expect to be stared at, pointed and gawked at, and asked the same 3 questions over and over again (Can you use chopsticks? Can you sit seiza? Can you EAT NATTO?). But that all comes with the territory. Not really racism, just something to keep in mind.

The beauty of the country lies in how much there is to see and experience (and near it all is when compared to places like the United States). If you come to Japan with no knowledge of the country at all, you will most likely leave in two years with basic conversational Japanese and far more wonderful experiences and encounters than you can shake a stick at. Oh, and you will have eaten a ton of good food. Some of this best of which can be found in Hokkaido.

Really it boils down to what AndyM825 said, "if you are interested, come to Japan, if not, don't but you do sound interested so come and find your own Japan" And there is so much to find that you can't possibly be disappointed. Onsen alone is a reason enough.

I find plugging one's own blog to be pretty lame but in this case, I think it'll be alright. My girlfriend and I have been writing about our experiences as teachers in northern Japan HERE.
Don't know if it'll help you but there are at least a couple silly stories and funny pictures on there.

Best of luck on your decision.
posted by RobertFrost at 9:29 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

The light. You will take the best photographs of your life.

It's filled with pixie dust or something, I swear.
posted by rokusan at 9:29 PM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I wanted to live in Japan, and I am loving doing so now. However, I have found that others who did not want to come, or were not sure, generally ended up hating it. Those little things can eat at you. Everyone who wanted to come here and experience it, generally ended up loving the stay.

Usually going back home drives me nuts now :)

Every day Tokyo finds some way to entertain me, even during something as boring as commuting to work.
posted by lundman at 10:31 PM on July 23, 2008

If you are a vegetarian or allergic to seafood, be warned. You're not going to find much you can eat in Japan. There's a lot of bonito flakes, and a lot of places just won't get that you don't eat meat.

(Two friends of mine lived in Japan under those restrictions, and hated it, because the constant preoccupation with finding food that was either religiously acceptable or medically safe really detracted from the overall experience.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:43 PM on July 23, 2008

"If you are a vegetarian or allergic to seafood, be warned. You're not going to find much you can eat in Japan."

My god this is ever true. If you are vegan or strict vegetarian, just don't come to Japan. I wouldn't wish that sort of punishment on anyone. I feel like many people think something along the lines of "ooh, Japan loves tofu so it must be wonderful place for vegeatrians." No. Pretty much everything has meat of some kind in it, even down to soup bases (dashi).

Just a word of caution.
posted by RobertFrost at 11:16 PM on July 23, 2008

You get to experience a very different culture while enjoying a very Western-style developed, convenient, high-tech infrastructure. The air-conditioned trains run on time and the stores sell anything you like (at least in the bigger cities) but at the same time you can immerse yourself in a brand new culture.

The culture is different enough to be humbling (something most westerners could use) yet liberating - Japanese people will cut a gaijin a lot of slack on making mistakes. As someone who screws up a lot in my own culture, I sort of enjoyed the freedom of the assumption that I will get things wrong, and was elated when I managed to get them right.

The aesthetics - just about everything in Japan benefits from a high level of design, either traditional or ultra-modern. It's hard to describe, but you really get the feeling that effort made into making your surroundings beautiful, whether you're in an inn, department store, or subway train. Advertising is everywhere, but most of it is cool-looking and innovative. Signage is useful and attractive. Most people are very well-dressed, etc. It's good for the soul, I think.

The level of technology is similar to the level of design - it seems that Japan enjoys a higher percentage of early adopters, so if you are a gadget geek at all, you will find cool tech toys that aren't yet available in your country. And they'll come in every color of the rainbow!

Obviously there are downsides as well, and Japan is a real place with real people and sometimes they're unfriendly or annoyed at your mistakes or just plain xenophobic. But it's worth going for a year or two - and there are a lot of young English teachers around for you to make friends with, plus the expat thing serves as a certain filter.

Other expats are by definition a littler cooler and braver than people you meet back home, since they had the courage and curiosity to work abroad for a while. And ditto on Japanese people that you can befriend, since they are willing to put in the extra work of being friends with a foreigner, and (I am guessing) a non-Japanese speaking one at that. The social opportunities are excellent because of that.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 11:32 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might also want to check out Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan written by a JET teacher
posted by puffin at 4:29 AM on July 24, 2008

Toto toilets. The buttons! Oh lordy, the buttons...

and the one linked is super basic too
posted by spec80 at 6:47 AM on July 24, 2008

Can you say what program you'll come over with, or wha company you'd be working for? Do you know where you'd be? That will have a lot to do with it.

I've been here for eight years now, and like lundman said, going back home usually drives me nuts. That said, there are good things about being here, and also pretty lousy things. One thing, and this is something to be careful about, is that it's easy to come here for one or two years, but still be here eight years later. Most of my foreign friends have been here at least 5-6 years, and probaby will be here a bit longer.

Good things:
incredible amounts of freedom for foreigners. This isn't the best, most noble thing, but a lot of Japanese people expect foreigners to be odd. You're able to get away with things you probably couldn't back home. On the other hand, after a while (say, deciding to stay) watching lots of fools lowering the bar for gaijin everywhere gets tobe tiresome.
Cherry blossoms are absolutely fantastic, and while being overwhelmingly popular, are nowhere near being cliched. They're just awesome.
Baseball is fantastic here, because of the fans, and the atmosphere. I've never liked MLB, just thought going to games was boring. Go to a couple games here. You'll love it. Just as long as you swear to hate the Giants. Among foreigners, only tools wear Giants merch.
It's a culture that isn't rooted in the puritan "fun things must be bad" mindset that still pervades the US. There is no "guilty pleasure" here, there's just things you like. Drinking? In public? Back home, that's a problem (at least in the midwest), here, it's the norm. The beach, without a cooler, well, yeah, it's fun, but not quite the same. Same with fireworks. Same with everywhere. There's no judgemental attitude towards booze, sex, or all of the things we call vices.

Bad things:
A lot of foreigners living abroad have a very strong "I'm the main character in the story of a single foreigner living in a strange land" fantasy going. From my personal experience, I would suggest that nodding and smiling to another foreigner on the street is not a wise course of action. I've lived in China as well, and it was similar. For me, it becomes self-fulfilling. My neighborhood has had a marked increase in young foreigners much like you'll be, and I don't make eye-contact, mostly because I figure they'll reject it, which they probably take as me being the cold ass who doesn't want to be friendly...
Fitting in can be hard. Depending on where you live, Japanese people can be difficult to get to know. It seems most Japanese people are very slow to truly open themselves up to you. You'll always be noticeably different, and you will get looks (again, if you're not asian), and some people will avoid sitting next to you on the train (more leg room for you!).
Renting an apartment, on your own, is a nightmare. Many places still won't rent to foreigners, and there's nothing that you can realistically do about it.
Shoganai. It's a saying in Japanese that means "It can't be helped." It's used for any problem that is too big, too difficult, or too inconvenient to do anything about. It's also used for things that could realistically be changed, but the effort required isn't there, and will likely never be. This could be applied to the size of housing in Japan, politics, right wing sound trucks (check out Uyoku on google or wikipedia), owners of restaurants having to payoff thugs for the right to run their business, and, well, you get the idea.

The thing is, I still love Japan. It's stunning. I had some college friends over for my wedding, and through them, I got to feel what it was like to see this place for the first time. It's a stunning place, and you won't regret coming for a year or two, or maybe more. And if you're in the area, I promise I'll smile when I see you.

On preview: Learning to Bow is pretty good, especially for a JET teacher, though a bit older, I think.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:59 AM on July 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

- Start learning Japanese. Right after you made the decision to go. Then stick to it, however hard it may seem. Learn as many kanji as you can cram into your head -- it's the key to the language.
- Quit teaching English as soon as you can. Once you can speak Japanese, there is simply no reason to punish yourself like that and there are much more interesting jobs out there. Depending on what kind of degree you have, think about getting a job in that field in Japan. There are lots of foreign companies in Japan looking for expats.
posted by sour cream at 9:14 AM on July 24, 2008

I have to echo what others have said above about interest- if you don't have a pre-existing interest its kind of puzzling to me that you would apply for a grant to go. I lived in Japan during college for 5 months and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I think a large part of this was a deep desire to understand the country better and a pre-existing interest and investment in learning Japanese and studying everything I could about the country.

I don't think anyone here telling you how awesome the country is (so many amazing things listed above are right on) is going to make you have a "genuine" interest if you don't already. All these things, while awesome, are just window dressing.

Also I think its criticial to understand that Tokyo and to a degree other large cities are very very different from the countryside. Most people don't think of Japan as largely agrarian, but it is. The cities are crazy and crowded. To give you an idea- the train that connected by suburb of Tokyo to the main line (yamanote) was one of the most crowded in the city. On my way into the city in the morning there were people employed by the train line to cram people into the train so the doors would close. Once the train started moving it was literally physically impossible to move until the next stop. Not all trains are like this obviously, but Tokyo is a crowded and busy city.

I'm not trying to discourage you or paint a negative picture of Japan- I loved it there and would go back in a second. The people on the whole are incredibly friendly and generous. My host family are people that I will never forget and stay in contact with. There are things you will see there that you can't find anywhere else.

Someone above mentioned that no matter how hard you try you will never assimilate and that even though you know that's the case you still keep trying- this is amazingly accurate. Once you get the bug you will never lose it.
posted by zennoshinjou at 6:28 AM on July 25, 2008

I love the language, and I love calligraphy. When I return to Japan, the first thing I do is hit a bookstore and buy magazines (Takarajima and De Caapo) and books, usually from the history section.

I lived in rural Japan (we're talking serious boonies - think "My Neighbour Totoro") more ten years. I liked the sense of community and the food. I never really liked Osaka or Tokyo, I did enjoy visiting Nara and Kyoto to go shopping and maybe eat at a nice restaurant.

I enjoy the Japanese appreciation for alcohol - I like to start drinking at 10AM on a Sunday morning at my friend's father's house up on the mountain, waiting for the other four sons and their families to arrive from Osaka to watch the baseball game, eat barbeque, and drink and tell stories.

I enjoyed hiking. I also enjoyed traveling in the northeast, the Tohoku region, where I saw the mummified remains of a canonized ascetic, high up in a mountaintop temple.

I remember taking the train up the Japan Sea coast with my wife. It was the end of the day, and we were heading for Atsumi onsen, in Yamagata. The cliffs crowded out the rail line along the coast, so at times there was only single track. The train stopped on a siding to let another oncoming train pass, and I could see children playing on the street next to the small train station. The waves broke on the beach right across the street as the sun set, and the low jagged mountains stretched north up to the coast, towards our destination.

I love going to the bath with the family on Sunday. I like eating nabe hotpot on Sunday evenings while watching prime time tv (Sazae-san, karakuri terebi, Dash Mura).

I love taking the train when it's snowing out at night.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:26 PM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

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