North-European living the Japanese dream in Osaka.
The end of the year is apparently the biggest holiday of the year in Japan. People compare it to the western Christmas, as people go and visit their families and friends, drink, have fun and sing “ashita ga aru”. I have had some varied experiences when it comes to New Years in Japan. My first time in Japan, I was in university, I was in a strange country and ready for anything. So naturally I decided to go clubbing. I am not now, nor have I ever been the clubbing type of person, and I have no idea why I decided to go. The alcohol was expensive, the music was loud and I was an hour away from anywhere called home. Despite everything seemingly working against me, I actually had a pretty good time. I got mildly drunk, danced until I got self-conscious and had some deep, meaningless conversations with friends I don`t talk to when I am sober. All in all quite a successful night. I guess one of my biggest culture shocks happened that night too. After the countdown (big screen in the dance-hall and everybody dancing), we went outside to get a bit of fresh air. Right next door, there was another bar or club, but they had this big, wooden bowl and a cartoon-sized hammer just whacking a blob of mochi in the middle of the corridor. I was gaping in awe of this sight. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. So these mochi-people, seeing this foreigner wide-eyed stare, offered the hammer to me and for the first time in my life, I whacked mochi with all my might. And let me tell you, it was wonderful. I have GOT to get me one of these bowls! 2015-2016 was pretty interesting too. There I was with my partner in Osaka. We decided to go to Osaka Castle to witness the countdown light show. We went walking to the park and I thanked multiple deities that someone invented “Kairo”, the self-heating bags that you can keep in your pocket or glue to your clothes to keep warm. It was freezing cold, and it did not help that we had to stand outside, waiting for the countdown to begin. So we wait and wait and wait. Finally people start to count down. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Yay! Nothing… The normal lights of the castle turn on and life continues as if nothing had happened. No light show, no nothing. It. Was. Cancelled. Oh well, we went to the shrine next to the castle and did the whole “first visit to a shrine of the year” thing. There were people playing drums there and another group of people were giving out free hot soup. You know the feeling when you are really thirsty and finally get to drink a glass of water and it tastes like honey from the heavens? That is exactly what the soup tasted like. We were freezing by that time, so a hot cup of tonkatsu soup was just the right thing to kick start the body back from hibernation and get our good feeling back. We thought about waiting to see the first sunrise of the year. We thought about it for exactly one second before running inside to warm up. This New Year`s eve was a little different. One major difference is that, due to some … family matters … we cannot really celebrate. In Japanese tradition, when a family member passes, you are encouraged not to celebrate anything for a few months afterwards (even up to a year). That means, no shrines, temples, weddings, and no major celebrations. In light of these new circumstances, and looking back at our failures in the last seconds of 2015 what with Osaka Castle not lighting up and all, we did not make the same mistakes again. We refused to be fooled by cancellations and promises of lights when there are none. This time, we acted like the middle-aged couple we aren`t and stayed home. No going out in the freezing cold. No standing in line for 45 minutes to pray for luck and wealth to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and a definite no to all crowded areas. It was bliss! We stayed home all night watching endless comedy shows on TV and ate cakes. (That doesn`t count as celebrations, right?) Doing that, we managed to relax, save money (since we didn`t take any expensive trips) AND hopefully we gained some holiday weight. Who knows what next year will bring. There are plenty of events and shows in between Christmas and New Year`s eve. Light shows, concerts, dinners with distant family members whose name you conveniently fail to mention because you have no idea what it is. The possibilities are endless. Whatever will happen, one thing will be guaranteed. It will be interesting. It wouldn`t be Japan without a little bit of surprise.
This year has been a remarkable one. With celebrities dropping like flies and America`s political biosphere on fire, it is good to look back and reflect on all the good and bad things these past 365 days have brought. Of course, living in Japan is a whole other story. When you stay here for long enough, the outside world starts to look like some distant memory; nothing can touch you. For some, this means the stress of war, turmoil and new presidents (not necessarily talking about Trump here. Iceland also got a new president this year, albeit one with less fabulous hair). Some people come to Japan to run away from their problems. The problem is that this country is not free from its own problems. Troubleshooting in a completely different environment is not for the faint of heart, and many well-meaning individuals buckle under the pressure and leave within a few months. There is a term I often refer to when discussing the expat experience: The Honeymoon Period. For those not familiar with the term, The Honeymoon Period is the time period in the beginning of your stay somewhere unfamiliar, where everything seems perfect. The flowers smell fresher, the air is cleaner, the people more polite, trains on time and the food. Oh my Glob, the food! Like an explosion of feel-good senses burst from your brain and permeates everything you see. Even the homeless people seem to be smiling. Now, as we hopefully know by now, all good things come to an end. It is sad but true. You wake up one morning and you find an uncooked rice in your bowl of gyudon. You drop your change from the conbini because the teller put the coins on top of the receipt again. Some kid yelled “Why Japanese people!” at you for the three-thousandth time and something inside you. Just. Snaps. This is when the honeymoon period ends. The time it takes differs between people. For some it takes only a few months. For others, a few years. The most common timeframe I`ve heard is two years. It seems that the second or third year for expats is the hardest one. I guess it has something to do with starting to see patterns in life. You`ve experienced the same things before, the veil of freshness drops and your brain starts getting bored. And when it gets bored, it starts focusing on the negative parts in life. And that`s when you`re in trouble. For myself, I have no idea where I am on the “honeymoon-period-curve”. I am on my third consecutive year in Japan, but my fourth in total. I have experienced some hardship and annoyances during that time, but never have I gotten close to saying “well, it has been fun. I`m leaving. See ya never!”. So for the difficulties of 2016, I would only count the minor grievances as a collective, rather than one big event. And even then, these annoyances don`t add up to me wanting to pack my bags. So, without further ado, I present the top 5 gripes of 2016 in no particular order. 1. The amount of people (hito-gomi). There are so many people in Japan. There are so many people in the cities. There are so many people in my train station. Why can I not get a seat on the train at 7:30 on a Wednesday in the most populated station in West Japan? Why is everybody pushing me? Why is that person running? What does he know that I don`t? Don`t you dare steal that seat. I saw it first! What`s that smell? Why is a school baseball team taking the train now? Despite all that, I actually really like riding trains. 2. Polite versions of already polite enough words There`s the plain form, there`s the polite form, there`s the super polite form and probably twenty more forms. I barely mastered using the desu-masu forms, and the teller in the Disney store just asked me something I couldn`t understand. I say “eh?” and the teller replies “puresento?” like I`m a damn fool. Even now, I cannot recall what she actually said, but I know it was not a “masu” form of any word I know. Or maybe it is. Now, the real reason I don`t understand is because I haven`t bothered to learn as much as I should have. That doesn`t make me feel any better, you know! 3. The lack of sleep Japan has such variety. There are so many things to do here. Everything is available almost any time of the day. 24/7 entertainment. Why would you want to leave? Why would you want to sleep? So what if you have to wake up at 6:30 to dance in front of hundreds of 6 year olds. You can survive on 3 hours of sleep and coffee. There is no escape. Sleep or boundless entertainment. Choose one and regret the other. 4. The variety Why buy this when you can buy that? This place has a discount, but this place uses point cards. If you sign up now, this place offers a free takoyaki machine with your purchase. Options, options, options! Sometimes I wish for a world that has just ONE STATE APPROVED TOILET PAPER TYPE. And then I remember that I actually like takoyaki. Oh well. 5. The weather It`s too sunny. It`s too cloudy. It`s too rainy. It never snows! It`s too cold! Why can`t it be summer in wintertime and winter in summertime? Why is the weather not like it used to be back home? What? It`s because I`m not home? What`s this nonsense? Now, as you may have noticed, these are extremely minor annoyances. Barely worth mentioning. And all of them can be summed up to my own personal view of the world. My own failures as a person, my own inexperience and my own irrational, egotistical ways. And that is the way of the world. We all get upset sometimes that the world doesn`t revolve around us. And that`s quite alright. As long as we recognize and deal with our feelings in a productive, safe manner (Batting center!), it`s alright to feel the way we feel. If you start feeling overwhelmed and alone, just remember that there are options (options, options, options!). We all get into a slump every once in a while. As Doctor Seuss said, there are plenty of ways to “unslump” yourself. 2016 is coming to an end. The next year will promise another four seasons and a whole lot of reasons to leave the country. It also gives us just as many reasons to stay. So let`s rejoice and count our lucky stars we`re not celebrities.
Christmas back home is always special. The entire extended family gets together, has a massive dinner with ham, turkey, goose, browned potatoes and an endless flow of gravy. Presents and pleasantries are exchanged, everyone is happy. This will be my fourth Christmas in Japan, and honestly, although it doesn`t have the same `homey` feel to it, I enjoy it so far. Different countries have different ways of expressing themselves. My first Christmas in Japan I honestly can`t remember. I was in university and was living in a dorm. Although New Year’s eve was memorable, with all its drinking and dancing and attempting to count down from 10, Christmas passed quietly by without so much as a peep. A few years later, after I properly moved to Japan, I had my second Christmas here. I was living in Kanto, with great access to Tokyo without the hustle of having to actually have to live there. So, naturally I went to Disneyland. On Dec 24th. Now, I know what you might be thinking. Is he insane? Nobody goes to Disneyland on Dec 24th! There`s too many people! Well, I was pleasantly surprised. I don`t know if it`s the park layout or the wonderful people who work there or some sort of Disney magic, but it didn`t seem as crowded as it should have. We even managed to go on a few rides and see Santa in the parade (yes, he waved at us!). I highly recommend going to Disneyland and Disney Sea (on separate days of course) during the Christmas season. You won`t regret it. The third Christmas was after my partner and I finally moved to Kansai. Naturally, there`s no substitute for Disney, but we made do with Universal Studios. Now, tickets to USJ are considerably cheaper than tickets to Disneyland, especially yearly passes, so we couldn`t …pass on that deal! (haha) I have to say, when you only have one chance to go to Disneyland, the pressure to have fun makes the experience a little bit frightful. So, when we have yearly passes to USJ, we go there, ride the Harry Potter rollercoaster, decide that we`re tired, leave and come back the following day. Or not. It`s our choice. And I think that`s one of the great draws of having a yearly pass. If you`re on the fence whether or not to buy the yearly pass, keep this in mind. If you`re pressured to have fun, you won`t have fun at all. This year is my fourth Christmas in Japan. What will we do this year? Well, there are a few options to consider. 1. For the traditionalist in me Decorating Christmas trees is a wonderful tradition that brightens up the house and brings out the hidden interior designer in us all. I usually try to spot the moment 100 yen shops start selling Christmas products (usually right before Halloween ends). My partner and I usually end up buying way too many decorations and have no idea where to put them. But being creative is just part of the fun. Now, right after Christmas is the perfect time to buy discounted decorations. You can find products for up to 90% discount in some stores. This is the time to buy in bulk. I buy a lot, put them straight in a box and put the box on a high shelf not to be opened until in November the next year. It`s a little present from me to me. 2. For the food lover in me There`s no shortage of good food in Japan. Getting all sorts of foods from other countries is a breeze compared to just a few decades ago. Although getting ham from Europe seems pretty difficult. But anyway, the old story about how Japanese people simply cannot celebrate Christmas without KFC chicken seems a bit off to me. The people I work with are more inclined to eat chicken from Mos Burger. This year, my partner and I decided to go all out. We pre-ordered Christmas cheesecake and chicken from our local Life Supermarket. I am very looking forward to seeing the results. In the years past, we simply went to the supermarket on the very last minute, so that we could feast on the discounts, rather than the food. I really recommend doing this if your wallet is lighter than a helium balloon. But the options are as many as there are people (and there are a lot of people here). 3. For the commuter in me The bigger train stations usually have something for everyone. There`s illuminations everywhere, the shops are decorated, the classic Christmas songs are blasted through every speaker possible and not to mention all the great Christmas bargains. I personally recommend either Kyoto station or Osaka station. They usually have some events that make going there worth it. Unfortunately, I always forget one important thing about Christmas in Japan. You see, back in Iceland, Christmas starts on December 24th. The entire thing is filled to the brim with celebrations and special days. Christmas officially ends on January 6th, the 13th day of Christmas. This is when you are allowed to take down your Christmas decorations. This is not the case in Japan. In Japan, Christmas begins when the stores decide to put up the decorations and it ends on December 25th. After that, they have to get ready for New years, which is more important to the native Japanese. What I`m trying to say here is, if you`re like me and wait until the last minute to do everything, please remember that the last minute is a lot sooner than you think. Whatever you decide to do this Christmas, just remember one thing. That last box of Christmas lights in IKEA is mine!
Are you a fan of ghost towns? I certainly am. I have been intrigued by abandoned buildings, ruins and any type of place where people used to live and you can see signs of life even though it is not there anymore. That is why when I went to Kyushu, the must-go place was definitely Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island. I have seen countless (more than two!) documentaries about Gunkanjima and it is just such an interesting place. It was a bustling coal mining town in the 60s or 70s, but when the coal industry shrank, the company running the show decided to pack their bags and move back to the mainland. The people there abandoned the place so quickly, it still feels like someone lives there, sans all the rust and collapse. Of course you come there by boat. You are lead on a small tour on one side of the island and you can take pictures of the buildings from the outside. Unfortunately you cannot go inside anywhere on the normal tour, so you need to be satisfied with the outside. Oh well, it was still amazing. If you have nothing else to do in Nagasaki, and especially if you are a fan of abandoned buildings and a bit of history, I highly recommend Gunanjima. The tour itself only takes a few hours anyway. It really is unique.
Huis Ten Bosch
When travelling around Kyushu, it is only too easy to find places to visit. The entire island is filled to the brim with interesting tourist attractions. For this exact reason, I almost overlooked Huis Ten Bosch. In my opinion, Huis Ten Bosch is one of the most important cultural relics of Japan’s early communication with the Netherlands. Without going into too much historical detail I have no idea about, the place itself is simply lovely. Just like I imagine the Netherlands is. There are tulip fields everywhere. Not only that, but the stereotypical windmill is also present. If you decide to go there, try to go in the right season. Whenever tulips are in full bloom will be the correct time to go. Although it will most definitely be crowded. There is an overlook tower where you can see the harbor and the old ships. The houses are mostly built in the European style and the food is especially delicious. I highly recommend the cheesecake there. Aside from all that, they also have a light show in the evening which was a nice touch, since when I went there, there weren’t many flowers to speak of, it being March and all. Huis Ten Bosch is just a quick train ride from Sasebo and it will definitely be worth your time to visit at least once.
Do you know the feeling when you get out of a train station somewhere and the first thing you see is a Starbucks or a McDonalds? Well, the same is true for Torikizoku. I swear, these things are everywhere and I’m glad they are! Torikizoku is an “izakaya”, basically a loud, smoking bar that serves delicious food. As the name suggests, Torikizoku serves mainly chicken (in many forms) and most grilled on a stick. The service is extremely energetic; the waiters will yell out when anyone comes or goes. The waiters are very fast and the cooks are not afraid to show their grill-skill. The prices are average; each plate costing around 2-300 yen, but they won´t disappoint. I personally recommend the “momo tare” and the “heart-tare”. The granola salad is also really delicious, but to be fair, anything covered in sweet dressing with granola is irresistible by default. I’m not quite sure how their English menu is, but don´t worry! Their menu is carefully illustrated with delicious looking pictures, designed so even if you don´t speak a lick of Japanese, you can point and gesture how many you´d like with little problem. Torikizoku makes me glad to live in Japan. Cheers!
Osaka Castle Park
When visiting Osaka, one of the first destinations should rightfully be Osaka-Jo Park. Take the JR Osaka Loop line and only four stops later it´s like you´re transported somewhere in the countryside. Trees everywhere and a magical looking castle in the middle. The castle has a long history of being built and destroyed throughout history, but the current castle and castle grounds look magnificent and attract hundreds thousands of tourists every year with new events going on regularly. Osaka-jo Hall is a large multi-purpose arena which holds concerts and many events. Last summer they had Disney´s Frozen-on-ice, a figure skating musical which was extremely popular. I urge you to visit on a day when no idol group like Arashi or Hey Say Jump are playing. Unless you enjoy walking through a crowd of middle-aged women fawning over their favorite Johhny`s. Recently, the park´s popularity has increased, since the release of Pokemon Go. On a hot summer´s night, it was not uncommon to see large groups of people (including myself) sitting near the castle itself, catching Arbok´s and Psyducks. Now that the weather (and the game`s popularity) has cooled down, I suppose there are less people around. I wouldn`t know. I am inside, drinking hot chocolate. Keep an eye out for the fat, orange cat that likes to walk around the castle. I named him Hideyoshi. What are you waiting for? Go explore this enchanted place!
Imagine this: You are in Yodobashi Camera. You have spent the last two or three hours traversing the numerous isles and shelves. Suddenly your stomach starts to gurgle and you realize you haven`t eaten anything all day. So you elevate yourself up to the eight floor, only to find a plethora of restaurants and options. Overwhelmed and irrational from hunger, you are tempted to pick the closest restaurant and gorge yourself. Forget that thought, because you are going to Nihon Ichi. It`s a lovely, simple sushi restaurant that can fill you up for only a fraction of the cost of other restaurant options. The cheapest plates go for around 100 yen, and naturally others are more expensive. I am a big fan of squid and octopus, so I usually eat my weight in each every time I go there. The atmosphere is lovely. The workers there are friendly and willing to assist you. Of course you can take food from the conveyor belt, and there`s nothing wrong with that, but I usually order from the tablet on the table. That way I can make absolutely sure that the food I am eating is as fresh as possible. If you use the reservation website called E-Park, you can sometimes get coupons for something delicious as well as reserve a table in advance. Although you probably won`t need it. I whole heartedly recommend this place. It usually costs me just under 800 yen and I think that`s quite reasonable.
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