To continue. (Missed part one? Read it here!)
Let me ask you something: when was the last time you saw some fireworks? The 4th of July? (Non-American readers…some other day?) Well, that’s not too long ago. Okay, so when was the last time you shot off some fireworks? I know that for some of you the answer will be ‘never,’ while others of you will once again answer…the 4th of July. (Still others of you will respond that you actually have a box of Roman Candles in the garage you’ve been meaning to shoot off, and thanks for the reminder!)
Here in Japan, they never met an occasion that couldn’t be improved with some fireworks. Fireworks shows for the festivals? Check. Fireworks shows for the holidays? Check. Fireworks because it’s…Tuesday? Eh, why not? Now, (as I previously mentioned) I was raised in the Midwest, where fireworks regulations are fairly loose and nonrestrictive. We used to shoot off our own fireworks in July…I remember one year when a Roman Candle tipped over and started shooting fireballs into the neighbor’s cornfield – oops. Even so, I’ve never lived in a place where fireworks were so common and casually used. When’s the last time you said, “Oh, we’re having a barbecue this weekend – let’s pick up a bag of fireworks,” or “We’re headed to the beach, let’s pick up some fireworks,” or “Max wants fireworks for after the birthday cake,” or “Hey, it stopped raining, want to shoot off some bottle rockets?”
In Japan, it seems, there’s no wrong time – or place – for fireworks. I’ve seen kids lighting fireworks along a busy street at 5 pm on a Wednesday, and often we’ll be sitting in our living room and look up at some unexpected thumping only to see a full professional fireworks display taking place right outside our window. It’s good, lighthearted fun and I’m going to miss picking up fireworks in the 100 yen store right across from the water guns.
4. Sweet Sweets
Forget American sweets that please the palate by bulldozing piles of sugar across your tongue. Japanese sweets are still sweet to the taste, but they’re made with a little more creativity and variety instead of just piles of sugar. Crepes seem to be a national favorite – they even have these divine confections at Baskin Robbins! (And, in case you were wondering, those are not real crepes in the window. It’s fake food, meant to represent their menu. They’re very convincing! …And yes, those crepes in the second row have slices of cheesecake on them. Yum.)
You know, the Japanese people think that American desserts are way too sweet. Every year the military base has community fundraisers, and one of the most popular items to sell to the Japanese is cake. It’s just regular, cake mix cake – with no frosting. They don’t like the frosting, because it’s far too sweet. Having all of these treats that have more flavors to them than just SWEET has been something of a revelation.
Oh! I am going to miss that patisserie!
If you know Japan, you know that kawaii – cute – stuff is everywhere. On buildings. On buses. On clothes, toys, erasers, food, television, construction equipment and even on high voltage warning signs. Let me ask you, have you ever seen an excavator painted to look like a giraffe? Or a bus shaped like a puppy?
See those newspapers? They’re provided after the checkout to wrap your fragile purchases for the ride home. (First of all – is it just me, or do they not have that in America? They’re so nice.) Somebody at the store arranged them into hearts, and takes the time to keep them that way. Why, you may ask? Kawaii desu!
Of course, it doesn’t hurt matters that because of this, my – ahem – adorable children are exclaimed over everywhere we go. As a mom who has to drag a (frequently misbehaving) mob around, it’s so nice to feel that people are pleased and excited to see us. I may be fuzzy, but I seem to remember that in America, other people’s children are mostly ignored or avoided in public. Here all the cashiers and the salesladies smile and try to get the boys to talk to them, and even in random public places people are likely to stop and say hello. Since the twins were born, we sometimes have to almost peel people off the stroller at festivals. Sure, a lot of that is because they’re all blue-eyed Americans, but I’ve seen how Japanese children are treated in public and it is much the same. They love ‘cute!’
2. Gardens, Gardens, Everywhere
This one was a surprise to me – I remember when we moved here, I thought of Japan as a very urban place. People crammed together in skyscrapers, concrete everywhere, cramped conditions and tiny accommodations. Now, I’m not going to pretend that all of those preconceptions were false. Even out here in rural Japan, where there is much more room than in – say – Tokyo, houses are very small and yards are even smaller. We had a friend who lived in a house that was smaller than our living room. With three other people! What has amazed me, though, is that no matter how small or sad their tiny patch of earth outside their house may be…
It will be filled with green and growing plants. Forget flat, sterile lawns covered in 2″ blades of grass. Around the houses here you’ll find flowering cherry trees, blossoming hydrangeas, daffodils, tulips, marigolds, wisteria, rose of sharon, and more! Even the little yard of my rental house here has hydrangeas, tulips, two small pine trees, and a patch of a beautiful purple flower that I love so much I wish I knew what it was so I can plant it back in the States. (Do you recognize it?)
Even places where there is no earth to plant in, ornamental plants find their way around.
And you know what? I’ve never seen any of those planters stolen or vandalized. Weird.
1. Slow Food
Hmm, how do I explain this one? Well, I guess it started when we first went out to eat at a local restaurant. We ordered our food and we waited – and waited, and waited, and waited…and waited. We complained to each other about how long it took to get our food, but as soon as we took the first bite we shut up, because it was incredible. “Wow,” we said to ourselves. “This is a really good restaurant.”
Imagine our surprise when we had a similar experience at the next restaurant we tried – and the next one. Even at McDonald’s – yes, they have them here – the service is ‘slow’ (albeit faster than at a ‘sit-down’ restaurant) and the food is amazing. McDonald’s was almost the most impressive of the lot, because we knew what the food ‘should’ taste like, and somehow it tasted so much better than that. The conclusion that we have come to after our time here is that it’s just a question of time. Instead of being premade and kept warm or reheated when ordered, the food is made fresh when it is ordered. Instead of assembling the order as quickly as possible to get it out the window, they take time to assemble it properly. It’s a running joke in America that the food you get at the drive-thru window is nothing like the picture you ordered from – just imagine if each time you ordered you got food that looked and tasted exactly like the advertised picture suggested. Let me tell you, it’s amazing. Have you ever had fries or fried chicken that has only been out of the oil seconds before it reaches your plate? Aside from being finger-scorching, it tastes wonderful.
So, let me ask you something: if ten or fifteen minutes is the difference between forgettable and unbelievably delicious, why are we so unwilling to wait?
And another thing. In America, we learn to shop for large quantities of cheap food. In Japan, that isn’t the culture at all. Sure, there are cheap treats – but they’re small. And, you can get a lot of food – for a price. I suspect that the pricing more closely reflects the actual cost of food without subsidies and undercutting foreign competition. (Although…I really have to wonder about the $30 cantaloupe.) Instead of trucking the cheapest possible produce from places where it can be grown industrially, produce is grown locally by small farmers (like the ones who work the field out our window). Japan takes care to protect its farmers. In the US this would be seen as ‘unfair’ by the people who want the most for the cheapest, but having seen it in action I have to say I think they have something here. There is an unconscious assumption that foreign produce is inferior to Japanese produce, and given the quality of the fruits and vegetables I’ve seen, they may have something there. Protections on price and competition have allowed them to focus on quality instead of quantity. Take those strawberries (above). They’re about the size of a quarter. When’s the last time you saw such small strawberries in your supermarket? But they are the most fragrant, flavorful, wonderful, delicious strawberries I have ever had in my life. Sigh. They too, will be missed.
Pictured: $40 steak. Worth it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we’ve gained a new perspective on our food here, and it’s been really eye-opening. We’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to have a little really good food than to have a lot of mediocre food. You may think that’s obvious, but it wasn’t to us. I really, truly hope that we can keep that perspective when we get back to the States, and let it inform our eating habits for the rest of our lives.
Ahh, Japan. How I’ll miss you.