There are many things about Japan that’s bound to get on the nerves of anyone who has lived there for an extended amount of time. After being home for a while, I think about how happy I am that I won’t suffer through another winter with no central heating, or be referred to as “American Sized”, or have to deal with the nuances of communicating (which I found was not so much “reading between the lines” as it was “reading minds”). But for every one thing I don’t miss about Japan, there probably three things that I do miss. Naturally I miss my town, my friends, and my students, but there’s also countless “little things” that I miss about Japan. Here is a list of a handful of those things, in no particular order.
The diplomacy of Janken (rock-paper-scissors): In elementary and junior high school, there are few conflicts that can’t be resolved with a round of janken. There’s an extra jelly dessert? Janken. Who won that last karuta card? Janken. No one wants to volunteer to present first? Janken. The loser may groan about it, but no one ever demands a rematch. The word of Janken is final!
Combini: Oh how I miss these beacons of light, a place where I could pay my bills and buy my onigiri, where I could stop in for pudding at 12 pm or 12 am. Where I could pay for a bottle of water with an 10,000 yen (roughly $100) bill and the clerk wouldn’t even blink. I’ll always remember the friendly chime and the “Irashaimase” of my local Family Mart.
The Cuteness: How could I not love a place where everything has a mascot? Where no matter the location, there’s a gift shop with charms of Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma, AND Doraemon dressed like local fruits and flowers. Where my school lunch milk carton has a picture of Kobaton conducting a train or having a picnic. Frankly, everything without a smiley face is just boring now.
Meeting people from around the world: In my hometown in Colorado, meeting someone from east of the Mississippi river is about as “international” as it gets. So you can imagine my wide-eyed delight when I first karaoke’d with a group of Australians, or went to an onsen with a German, or danced at a club with a South African. Now it seems normal to go out with a Brit, an Aussie, and a Japanese person and then meet someone who’s Spanish but grew up in South America, and is stopping over in Japan on their way to Thailand.
My students’ English mistakes: Sometimes when I’d grade my student’s journals and tests, I worried that they haven’t learned any English at all. But usually the worry was replaced by delight as I read things like “I was in the blue grope.” and “I took part in an event like a cowboy.” Months are especially fun, “Jury” for July, “Nobender” for November. However, I still have no idea what month “Juniary” is supposed to be.
Kotatsu: While heating during the winter in Japan leaves quite a bit to be desired, kotatsu is completely awesome and something I wish I had back home. When the cold would set in around December, I’d throw the quilt over the table and tried to have everything I needed within arms-reach because I wouldn’t leave until April.
Being a semi-celebrity: What can I say? I enjoy it when my kids exclaim “Your eyes are blue!”, or marvel at my curly hair, or ask for my signature on their notebooks. It’s also fun to hear “Ro-ren-sensei, hello!” as I ride my bike around town. Of course, there are two sides to this coin, such as being spotted talking a guy friend and being asked, “Was that your boyfriend?” at school the next day. Or a student forgetting my name and referring to me as “gaikokujin”. Despite this, I’ll be sad not being so “exotic” when I return home.
Stationary: Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always loved shopping for school supplies, and Japan is a stationary junky’s dreamland. Even relatively small stores have pens that come in 17 different widths and an aisle devoted to stationary paper. There also all the wonderful stickers, notebooks, and file folders that have any animal, character, or famous landmark you can imagine on it. I’ll especially miss the awesome pop-up, foil embossed, and die-cut greeting cards.
Souvenir snacks: I think most of us think of “souvenirs” as tacky little trinkets we give to friends who probably will put it in a box and never look upon it again. But in Japan, the word for souvenir, “o-miyage”, also means little individually wrapped treats. Every little town has them in all shapes and flavors. They can be . . . interesting, like say a sembei with a slice of octopus baked in, but it’s a perfect gift for co-workers.
The General Bizarreness: Can you think of your first “Wow, this place is weird” moment in Japan? Was it when you first encountered a talking toilet? Or watched a variety show about eating? Or saw a little old man using a pink keitai with 17 charms dangling from it? Or learned the latest character all your students are obsessed with is a bowl of rice with a face called “Gohan-chan”? I miss these nearly daily encounters with the lovable weirdness that is Japan.