After two months of silence: I’m finally back on U.S. soil.
After suffering through China’s excruciating internet (wow, did it get WAAAY worse in the last two years, and hats off to fellow expats still suffering through it), I am finally able to wordpress and Google photos freely (and thus update this little blog).
I traveled extensively for six weeks throughout China and Japan–and believe me, I have A LOT to write about. I’m very excited to get some posts out in the upcoming days and weeks. It was great to be a nomad traveler again, donning a backpack and whizzing from place to place for days on end.
But trust me, it does get tiring. My last day in Japan I did nothing but lie in bed and drink cappuccinos. We all need time to wind down.
I’m still writing up posts, but in the meantime, my boyfriend wrote up his thoughts regarding his impression of Japan. I was really excited to take him to Japan and introduce him to my second home… and here are the results:
An Unbiased Outsider’s Perspective of Japan
Hi there. Many of you may already know that Mary loves Japan. After all, it takes someone with intense interest and dedication to study a category V difficulty language (highest level, as rated by the State department) and live/work there and deal with the opaque culture with hidden meanings. It’s no surprise that she raves about it whenever she can (trust me, I can attest as someone who lives with her). So what were my reactions after visiting for two weeks?
Japan is Cheap (but still high quality)
Wipe away all your preconceived notions about Japan being expensive – it’s not. At least, not now while the exchange rate stays above 100 USD:JPY. For starters, consider food. On the low end, you can get a filling boxed bento at the nearby convenience store for $3, which come with meat, veggies, and rice. What’s the equivalent in the US? A basic McDonalds burger, without the combo deal, which is just a slab of meat and lettuce in between two buns.
The mid-range of dining is where Japan really shines. Most restaurants I went to featured filling and delicious meals between $6-$14. This is where you find the bulk of what salarymen eat – teishoku set meals, soba, udon, ramen, fried rice, tonkatsu, and sushi. In America, you can probably find a similar price range in restaurants, but you’d have to add on top of that a 15-20% tip. Yes, tips are neither expected nor required in Japan.
The other big expense in life is rent. Take the happening downtown metros in the US. If you want to live in New York or San Francisco as a young person, looking to be around the action and good jobs, be prepared to shell out $3000 or more for monthly rent. Even if you move out into the less desirable suburbs, prices are still in the $1000-$2000 range for a shack. In Tokyo, a world class city, you can have the equivalent lifestyle for $700.
I’ll defer talking about health care, since I haven’t had that experience in Japan, but Mary tells me that it’s much more convenient and cheaper than the equivalent in America.
Japan is Safe
You’ll never feel in danger in Japan. Seriously, you’ll see elementary school kids walking by themselves on the streets and taking the metro. No one bats an eyelash at that. Contrast that with my own experience as soon as I set foot in Los Angeles. Just by taking the local train (the Metrolink) home, I was surrounded by thuggish-looking young men with tattoos, loose tracksuits, yelling into their phones or at random people sitting beside them. Then, walking to my house from the station, there were police sirens all around me, and search helicopters scanning the streets doubtlessly for some fugitive.
Japan has one of the lowest rates of homicide, violence, theft, and rape. I could leave my backpack, phone, or computer somewhere, wander off, and it would still be where I left it hours later. Many acquaintances have misplaced items, only for some kind stranger to return it or to bring it to lost and found. Be warned, however… stay too long and you may pick up some bad habits of being too trusting.
Japan is Convenient
Oh let me count all the ways that Japan is convenient. Their society anticipates your needs and tries to accommodate them. Bathrooms are everywhere – in parks, museums, metro stations, restaurants – that you’ll never go wanting. Even in the most remote places like the top of Mount Fuji, you can find an automated drink dispenser to quench a thirst. Small restaurants are everywhere. The ubiquitous convenience store (or conbini for short in Japanese) lets you withdraw cash, buy most necessities, and ship your luggage… and best of all they’re on every street corner.
Finally, you won’t have to bother with driving since an excellent network of trains and metros link the whole country.
Best of all, Japan doesn’t try to screw you over, milking you for every drop of profit. Dispensing machines don’t really change in price from the big cities to the countryside. Prices at the airport convenience store aren’t higher than in the city itself. Taxi costs are reasonable and drivers don’t try to screw you over.
Japan is Subdued Elegance
Some may take issue with Japanese homes. From the outside, apartments look a bit bland with uniform concrete and balcony spacing that reminds me of Soviet-style buildings. Even on the inside, there’s little in the way of interior decoration. Furnishing leans towards the practical, favouring multi-use rooms like a bedroom with roll up tatami mats that convert in the daytime to a dining room with a table. Space is at a premium because Japan is an island. That fact of life is unavoidable.
However, for me it’s a benefit. I’m rather sick of mowing lawns and spending hours vacuuming and cleaning, facts of life for single family homes in the US.
As for the subdued aspect, you’ll notice that Japanese people are not flashy with spending. Everyone looks well-dressed, but it’s evenly well-dressed. For a culture that values conformity and has a high degree of equality, even the few who are rich don’t like to advertise that fact with designer clothing, bling bling German-made cars, or ostentatious jewelry.
Am I biased? Undoubtedly yes. I use America as a comparison because it’s the exact opposite of Japan in many respects. America is a high cost, dangerous, and inconvenient country whose saving grace is that it’s a good place to make lots of money quickly.
Truly, I was able to experience most of Japan’s benefits without having to live through the negative aspects. Unfortunately, most Japanese people suffer through long hours and low pay at their jobs. A generation of young people unable to find full-time employment at the big corporations become “freeters” working at convenience stores or other low-paid service jobs. Even those who do land a corporate job find that it’s not so cushy. Given the Japanese love of equality and fairness, a promotion is more dependent on loyalty to the company and time spent rather than credentials, productivity, and results. Even if you move up to become the CEO, pay is much lower than equivalent positions abroad.
If you can avoid that big negative aspect of Japan, it’s almost the perfect country to live in (assuming of course you can master the tricky language). Try being an English teacher (you won’t be expected to put in Japanese hours), work on an expat package, or make your money elsewhere and retire in the country.