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I never really wrapped up my Japan trip from last year. I think it’s because my trip ran from September 3rd to September 17th 2007, and I made my last photo-intensive post about Japan on February 28th, in the absolute worst and greyest part of the winter. I had been talking about my trip for more than 5 months, and so i decided that maybe I was done for a little while.

It turns out that I am not done?

I feel like I’ve missed being in Japan more or less every day I’ve been back in Canada, in some small way or another. Quite honestly, my financial situation is such that I’ll not be traveling back that way any time soon, and that helps a little bit, knowing that it’s far away by more than one metric. It feels far away in my mind, I think because I took so much of my experience and compartmentalized it for the blog here, it now has a life of its own and has been enjoyed by more people than just me–and seriously, thanks to everyone for the comments and kind words on the photos and the journal, I’m tremendously proud of these posts and many of the photos.

Between talking to people at the Comic Con a few weeks back in San Diego, various friends that have come and gone to visit Japan since my trip, and the fact that I get a constant stream of Japanese news and info through my feed reader, little things have kept cropping up in my head, things that I never blogged about, things that I forgot until reminded of them. So maybe if I do another post about the things I miss, and love, I can get over some more of these memories, or at least be able to share them in a better way.

Things I Miss About Japan

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1. Convenience stores that are actually convenient. 24 hours, stocking all kinds of stuff you never even knew you needed at 4am but are happy to have access to, like fresh meals and cheap healthy dinners. The only places that have ever come close are the deli/bodegas in Manhattan, and they’ve just gotta keep better hours… and sell alcohol after 2am.

2. Vending Machines are everywhere. I joke that there are vending machines every 15 metres in urban Tokyo, but that’s probably a figure that’s on the low side in most neighborhoods. Tucked into every available space there are machines serving cold and hot drinks of every conceivable stripe, not to mention booze, snacks, and even fried rice and dumplings, all for a buck or two. I’ve never been so hydrated or had so little annoying pocket change as when I was in Japan.

3. What if the Transit actually worked? In Japan, it does! In two weeks of constant, constant public transportation use, we only ever encountered one late train. Seriously, everything else arrived exactly on time, to the minute, and we know that because there were signs everywhere saying when the next train would be. It had better and more frequent signage than the subways in Toronto, and in English to boot. It was a completely integrated transit system–payment was made with one loadable card that you didn’t even have to swipe, you just sort of waved near the turnstile. If you so desired, you could even just use your cell phone as your transit pass, wave IT over the turnstile, and have your transit fees appended to your cell phone bill. It… it just works. It’s clean and well laid-out and bright and on time and it goes everywhere and it works.

4. A feeling of personal safety. I’m a big guy, I live in a good neighborhood, and Toronto is a pretty safe city, all-told. But walking through the streets of Tokyo, Osaka, Himeji, Kyoto, in the middle of the evening, and not having to look over your shoulder? It’s not something you’ll really understand until you get to experience it for yourself. That’s not to say that there isn’t danger in Tokyo, I’m not an idiot, but I dropped my credit card while walking through a mall and someone actually ran up and gave it back to me. Let’s just say that sort of honesty rarely makes an appearance in my day to day life here in Toronto. Hell, not even close.

5. The height and the density. I was talking to my friend Nadine, and the density (and the noise) really, really put her off big-city Japan… she found it to be too much, but ever since I’ve been back I’ve been walking down streets wishing that everything was between 3 and 8 stories tall and jam-packed with amazing little boutique stores and new places to discover. I like that the big cities use their space intelligently, and vertically, and that there’s far, far less suburban sprawl. I like that the space between where you are and where you’re going is almost always filled with something interesting, or pretty.

6. You have to go to an onsen. One of the big things I wanted to do on my trip to Japan was sit in an onsen (a public bath), with a pool set into the side of a mountain and stare out at the sea and contemplate life. I did not get to do that, sadly, but I did get to sit in an outdoor pool outside on a manmade island in the middle of Tokyo Bay and look at the stars, contemplating life, and that was pretty excellent too. I have to admit to being pretty bashful about being big and white and red-haired and parading around naked in a traditional Japanese bath, but about 5 minutes in the baths and that melted away… literally melted as the water was like 40degrees centigrade (104f). It is a whole cultural excursion based entirely around relaxing as much as you possibly can, and it’ll run you between 10 and 20 dollars for 24 hours (you can sleep over, making it about as cheap as staying in a hostel). If I ever have to do Tokyo on the cheap, I’m going to eschew hotels entirely and just take a tour of various onsen.

7. It’s just different. I’m happy and comfortable and my husband is awesome. Things are pretty good. But dropping yourself down into someone else’s culture and then trying to adjust? Completely changing your day to day, your cultural touch points, your diet, your sleep, and trying to make yourself understood to people that are somewhere between vaguely afraid and outright terrified that you might engage them in an English language conversation? It’s awesome. I miss things being different, I miss feeling like I’m adjusting and then coming across something I can’t even begin to explain. I miss that most of all, probably.

Andrew just summed it up: Being in that situation really highlights the mundane. Because Japan is so weird anyway, things that are normally mundane aren’t. Like… toilets, for example. Just every day things like “which is the West exit, exactly”? Everything you do is an achievement. Throughout the short time we were there, we got better at being there, and that was really interesting.

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So, yeah. I miss Japan. I miss all the things I got to do and all the things I didn’t get to (can you believe I never got to go for Karaoke? Seriously?). I hope to go back as soon as I can, for longer, but it’s a long way off. Thanks for reading, and sorry for the lack of comics content. I’ll get back to it sooner or later…

- Chris


5 Comments on “Japan”

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  1. Eric says:

    *sigh* I miss Japan too…

  2. Jim D. says:

    I lived in Japan for a year in college and it was one of the best years of my life. I don’t think I’d ever live there permanently – eventually as a gaijin you start bumping into serious cultural walls, regardless of how good your language skills are – but I loved being there, and made some great friends (to whom the previous generalized statement about the culture does not apply). I’ve been back once since then, and can’t wait to visit again. Your pics and writeup really reminded me of that. Thanks.

  3. Nadine says:

    Sigh…i also miss the Convenience stores, and neat little bars. Also the constant vending machines.

    But it is true! I do not miss the constant density by a long shot. Or the rainy season, they can keep that. :)

  4. Steve MacIsaac says:

    Hi Chris,

    It’s funny, because the top 3 things on your list are probably the top three things on MY list about what I miss about not-living there – even though you were only there for a few weeks compared to three years. I’d probably move transit to number one though – perhaps it is the pain of living in non-transit friendly Los Angeles.

    Having been out for three years now, I don’t find myself missing it so much as missing people I met there. Maybe that’s because when I left, I was definitely ready to leave, whereas you just got your appetite whetted. I would definitely recommend it as a living experience, though – its an amazing city to live in, at least for a while, and very unlike any other.

  5. Αυτά που δεν είπα για το Τόκυο και τα διάβασα αλλού… « RosenRed says:

    [...] Και να, αρκετούς μήνες μετά, διαβάζοντας ένα άλλο blog, διαβάζω ακριβώς αυτά που θα ήθελα να γράψω! Πρόκειται για τα πρώτα πράγματα που θα κάνουν εντύπωση σε κάποιον που επισκέπτεται την Ιαπωνία για πρώτη φορά, νομίζω, αλλά η παράγραφος που παραθέτω εδώ, συνοψίζει όλη την εμπειρία μου: Being in that situation really highlights the mundane. Because Japan is so weird anyway, things that are normally mundane aren’t. Like… toilets, for example. Just every day things like “which is the West exit, exactly”? Everything you do is an achievement. Throughout the short time we were there, we got better at being there, and that was really interesting. [...]

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