Saturday, August 29, 2009

Unexpected lessons from life in Japan

Note: Edited Oct. 20 to officially add #10.

So having spent 4 of the last 10 years of my life abroad now, it's interesting to look back and see some of the less obvious things that I've learned in my time in Japan and roaming around. I'm sure there's plenty more I'm not thinking of, this is just off the top of my head.

1. What a real cockroach looks like.
By the time I first stepped foot in Japan I already knew a bit of the language, but the first new word I learned was 'gokiburi', or cockroach. Japanese roaches can get frickin' huge, and unless you have lived either Japan, Texas or somewhere south of the border or tropical, then I doubt you really know what I'm talking about here. Besides that though, the greater point here is that there is a whole world of disgusting and scary bugs out there that I was never aware of until coming here - 2" cockroaches, poisonous centipedes, giant moths and most recently swarms of little gnat-like flies that simply will not go away... I'll get back to that one later. To be fair though, there are cool bugs too like kabutomushi and praying mantises, which if you're lucky will feast on unassuming cockroaches.

2. Whale isn't so hot, but horse meat is actually pretty good.
If you live somewhere halfway across the globe, you're more than likely going to have to eat the local food or else pay out the ass to maintain your old eating habits. Luckily in Japan this isn't too bad since most of the food is excellent. This also includes being a bit adventurous sometimes, and I've taken some rather wild culinary adventures which have included whale meat, fugu, raw horse, fish scrotums, python-flavored ice cream, several tropical fruits I never even knew existed... and an overnight stay in a Bangkok hospital, but we won't talk about that one. The view was nice, at least. At the top of my list for "exotic" (Japan doesn't really feel so exotic after a while, thus the quotes) foods, I would say do try raw horse (basashi), fugu and eel (anago if they have it, unagi if they don't), stay away from fish scrotums (shirako), and only eat whale or sea urchin (uni) if you haven't tried it and want to, just once for the experience.

3. Most sauces and dressings are really simple to make.
I cook way more since coming to Japan - mostly because it's cheaper and healthier. I do make local stuff as well, but sometimes you just want a little taste of home. The only problem is that a lot of times the sauces and dressings you're used to back home are prohibitively expensive, if you can find them at all. Luckily, in times like this there is the interweb, with a little place called Can't find bbq sauce? No problem - do you have ketchup, sugar and red wine? Ranch dressing? Well that's just mayo, sour cream, garlic, onion and few other spices. I've figured out how to make a whole bunch of things from scratch out of necessity, and had plenty of fun along the way.

4. 3USD/gallon for gas is pretty damn cheap.

Growing up in the US, it's easy to become disillusioned about fuel prices, and really the cost of driving overall. You don't think about it, but we have government subsidies to thank for artificially lower gas prices than the rest of the civilized world as well as a mostly toll-free national highway system. Out here they'll charge you about as much for a liter as you would get a gallon in the US for, and there is not one section of highway that doesn't charge a toll. Luckily there's an easy way to get around the whole thing here - trains. You guys should look into those. :P

5. Toilet paper and toilets that have seats and flush are a luxury.
Wow- you would not believe the spectrum of toiletry you find in Asia! Starting off in Japan is actually pretty tame, although you do get to run the entire bathroom gauntlet from its traditional squatters (supposedly crouching helps things come out, but I'm not going to find out) to talking washlets that can make artificial flushing noises so no one hears you fart if you're concerned about that kind of thing. Once you get used to that go out to a place like Thailand, where I looked for toilet paper and instead saw a bucket of water with a small cup inside to wash myself with. Or China, where a friend of mine not only had to squat, but did so right next to other guys with no walls between them. Lovely stuff.

6. The whole world does not share my affection for cheese, and Chicken Kung Pao is not real Chinese food
It was almost traumatic the first time I went to a Japanese supermarket and looked for the cheese section. It was a selection of two types: sliced and grated. Simply another one of those products that isn't used in cooking as much as back home, so you don't find it as much (see #3 above). Also though, going to restaurants you'll find that things aren't served the same as you're used to. You may find a "hamburger steak", and when they bring you a side of fries you may get a single packet of ketchup when you expected them to just leave the bottle. Or even worse, they may just give you a dollup of mayonnaise! If you go to a Chinese restaurant, don't bother looking for General Tso's Chicken or Chicken Kung Pao, but say hello to gyoza and shumai. There's also Japanese interpretations of Italian, Thai, Indian and just about any other food you can think of which will more than likely be different than what you're used to. This can be doubly true if it's the Japanese interpretation of your own country's food - do not go to a Japanese Denny's as you will be most disappointed.

7. Never get an apartment on the 1st floor.

This may be more true here than back home, but God living on the 1st floor has more drawbacks than I could ever imagine! When you search for an apartment here, they list "2nd floor and above only" as a possible search criterion, and I now know why. I thought it was just a girl thing - not wanting neighborhood pervs stealing their panties and peering in to see them change and all (anyone who knows me knows that I have no problem with being seen less than fully dressed). But oh no, it doesn't stop there. First, it was the additional moisture, which gives way to mold. I have had mold on my floors, in the bathroom, on my clothes... on my couch! And then there's the bugs... they stay close to the ground, and we get them all. Never again, never again.

8. Platypodes lactate but don't have nipples, and other fun facts.
Ok, so this one doesn't actually directly relate to the point that I wanted to make per se, but it is an interesting and random fact that I looked up at work one day so I'm going to let it ride. I find out all sorts of interesting tidbits of useful uselessness for work looking stuff up on wikipedia among other sources. Some recent findings are where Toyota got the name 'corolla' from (it's actually the name for the petals of a flower) and that Princess Di was actually cursed by ancient Japanese superstitions. Sometimes it's more interesting than other times, and this is something that probably would've happened no matter where I work, but I'm guessing my job being here has me looking up different things than you would back home.

9. Lorries, boots and general dodginess.
An interesting thing happens when all of a sudden English is the common language between you and people from all over the world - you learn all sorts of quirky localisms from all 4 corners of the globe. This goes doubly true when you are asked at work to "fix" your own Americanisms to match a text to what someone in the UK (or Kenya, apparently) expects to see. Trucks suddenly become lorries, and Sarah Palin goes from being a dangerously uninformed extremist to merely being a wanker. This knowledge becomes doubly useful when on a night on the town with your new neighbor from New Zealand or Egypt, or somewhere else you're not likely to have ever actually been yourself (if you have then good for you). Now why a globe has four corners I have not a clue, but you will be sure that I shall be looking it up later per #8.

10. All the Stuff I've learned about Brazil. (added Oct. 20)
The last thing you expect coming to a country is learning about elsewhere in the world, but the truth of the matter is that you being fellow foreigners with others sometimes means you'll make bonds with a rather international crew. Since coming to Japan I have friends in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Korea... I could go on. I started capoeira out here too, which means I could find a place to stay in Brazil, no problem.

That's about all I have for now - if you have any additions of your own, feel free to comment.


Steve said...

Fun post. But, just so you know, and I have it on excellent authority, that Kung Pao Chicken is real Chinese food: peanuts and bite-sized chicken, 宮爆鶏丁.

darg said...

Heh, ok you got me then. :P I know the American version comes packed with more meat, and is often eaten without the rice though, so even then the American version doesn't really resemble the real thing, right?

Oh hey, and while I'm here #10: all the stuff I've learned about Brazil. The last thing you expect coming to a country is learning about elsewhere in the world, but the truth of the matter is that you being fellow foreigners with others sometimes means you'll make bonds with a rather international crew. Since coming to Japan I have friends in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Korea... I could go on. I started capoeira out here too, which means I could find a place to stay in Brazil, no problem. But then I don't have to tell you that, Steve, you've made some pretty close Chinese ties yourself. :P

Mike said...

My new apartment is actually on the first floor. Well technically the front door is and the 1st floor is a Chinese restaurant.

I know, I know. I've already called the pest control center and I'm really really really hoping my diligence for cleaning keeps me bug free.

I guess we'll find out in a few weeks...

Michael said...

This was a really interesting read - I enjoye dit a lot! I was particularly surprised that you talked about living on the 1st floor. I live on the 2nd floor and love it because I am relatively safe from floods, is easy access and low enough for a quick escape in earthquakes. Never considered the moisture and bugs though - will definitely avoid a 1st floor apartment if I move!

Anonymous said...

I hate bugs. I HATE BUGS. But, I'm from NY and I don't think the cockroaches are bigger here or more prevalent.However, I agree that variety of exotic (guess they're not exotic here though) bugs are off the charts. I saw a centipede about half a foot long and two inches thick, slithering up my bedroom wall, freaked out and through a book with all I had and but the book (and centipede) through the wall. it didn't die. i paid the landlord about 30000 yen to fixx the hole I'd made.
Funny Post. Gonna add you to my faves!

darg said...

Thanks for the comments, and posting this to JapanSoc Michael!

Michael: seriously, you have no idea...

Loco: You've seen 2" roaches in NYC?? Wow... remind me to be careful up there next time. In case you just haven't noticed, there are indoor roaches and outdoor ones, and the outdoor ones are the big uns... fast as hell, too. My problems are when the outdoor ones find their way inside after being exposed to gamma radiation, or whatever happens to them in the wild to make them so huge.

Mukade freak the hell out of me, so while it may appear that I'm laughing on the outside at your centipede story I am sympathetic to your plight.

Softbank Sucks said...

come now, 白子 is not a scrotum - but I guess you know that - and it is nice when lightly dusted in flour with some salt and pepper and sauteed with butter and fresh garlic (not the stuff in a tube).

darg said...

Softbank Sucks (I'm guessing no iPhone for you?): ok ok, so it's not a scrotum... but that's only because fish don't have a scrotum per se. I guess to be totally semantical about things shirako is "the male genitalia of fish when they contain sperm", which is closer to sucking on fish spheres than I care to be, especially raw.

That being said, if anyone else would like to try fish sperm in a sac-like vessel, then by all means try this recipe - I myself shall be saving my fresh garlic for Mr. Ed.

Anonymous said...

Being located in a tropical region means I see giant moths, spiders, monitor lizards, monkeys etc. on a regular basis. We don't have whale meat here though.

David said...

What? Whale karaage is great! (Yea, I'm a jerk but it's in the school lunch and I can't deny the yummy-ness.) And Uni, lovely food. Just gotta get the good stuff.

I had a student who use to work for an apartment rental agency. She had many stories about people (actually college students) letting their baths/toilets overflow and that water seeping through 2-4 floors below.

Great list! :D

darg said...

Envoy: Meh, you're really not missing too much in my opinion... whale's sort of like a fishy smelling steak, but not as juicy.

David: Thanks for checking it out! Everyone's got their preferences for food I guess - uni to me isn't bad, but isn't anything special either. I just don't see why it's seen as a delicacy and am not willing to pay the premium over other things that taste way better.