This "From the Sempai" post is brought to you by Nadia of Ethical Nippon, a blog focused on fair trade and ethical living in Japan, and one I've personally found to have some great thoughts. Even if you aren't sure about the whole sustainable, ethical thing, her tips may come in handy to any newbie in Japan.
Albeit brief, my time in Japan (and continuing interest) gave me enough insight to impart a few wise words to the newly arrived in Japan, of which I expect a good few are common knowledge, nonetheless…
1. Top tip: never tip!
A friend of mine made this fatal error after receiving Japanese style customer service, i.e. extremely attentive and helpful to the point that they will physically walk you to the furniture shop you asked directions for, then carry your chosen table back your apartment.
This was not quite the case for my friend, but the service he received was of the highest level and deserving of a small reward. As is the norm in many European countries and the USA, he offered a tip, which was refused. He persisted in his offering and left the shop to then find the old Japanese lady from the shop pursuing him down the street and forcing the tip back into his hands.
Now I think we can all deduce the moral of this anecdote…
2. Don’t litter.
The Japanese have this strange yet effective reverse psychology for litter prevention; all the litter bins have been removed. On a very rare occasion you may stumble upon a lone bin (or find some outside convenience stores), but more often than not the said bin will be for recycling PET bottles or cans at the ubiquitous vending machines (always better than a bin in my opinion). Public bins are the metaphorical needle in a haystack in Japan. Yet this marked absence of bins is effective in litter prevention: everyone takes their litter back home with them, and there is not a gum wrapper in sight. (Though at the beach this is often a different story…)
3. Do not blow your nose in public.
This is generally perceived by the Japanese as disgusting. Sucking up the phlegm in your nose loudly, if you’re male, then spitting it out once in the street is, however, often seems perfectly acceptable.
4. Clothes shopping (can be difficult...)
If you are above a women’s UK size 8 and UK shoe size 6 it is extremely difficult to find clothes and shoes and found it to be a thoroughly demoralizing experience. However, I was mildly successful with international chains such as Zara and Uniqlo, but compared with European and US stores I found the selection of sizes to be much more limited. Sources tell me that online is the way to go, but since I was not in Japan for the long term I did not try this route.
5. Eat. Enjoy.
Don’t question what you are eating; generally everything is incredibly tasty even if in some cases the meal in question looks like it has been dredged from the bottom of a pond. And if you become curious, as I did, I suggest you check out this site: http://www.savoryjapan.com/ingredients/fruit.html. I found it after 3 weeks in Japan, and realized that half the vegetables I believed to be eating were in fact…fish.
6. Sushi your heart out.
Make the most of sushi and Japanese food in general because when you return to your home country you will realize how blimmin’ awful and overpriced it is back home.
7. Sushi overdose?
Ate too much sushi? Feeling a little blocked..? I introduce to you the cure-all remedy: the Korean delicacy Kimchi-red, hot spicy fermented vegetables. I guarantee you will be relieved. Just don’t make any social plans for the next few hours following Kimchi consumption.
8. Bargain hunting.
If you want to find anything at a good price (well, a slightly cheaper price) try Don Quixote. There are hundreds of stores across Japan (and even 4 in Hawaii) as well as a few scattered across Tokyo including: Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Takenotsuka, Shinjuku, and Roppongi. I discovered the Roppongi branch in my final weeks and found it to be the best stocked for breakfast cereal and muesli (something I greatly missed in Japan), which is unsurprising since Roppongi is the expat hotspot of Tokyo.
9. Finding fair trade and ethical products
If, like me, the origins of what you consume are of importance, searching for ethical and fair trade products will pose somewhat of a challenge, especially if you don’t know any Japanese. Your best bet is to check out larger supermarkets for fair trade coffees, specialized boutiques, and the food halls of department stores (and of course, online!). Unfortunately it is much pricier in Japan than in Europe and the U.S.; a movement still in its embryonic stages.
If there is one thing you must try in Japan, it is an onsen (hot natural springs/hot baths). I guarantee it works wonders on your skin, muscles and mind! My top spots for onsen?
⇒ Hakone during snowfall, which you will still get even up to April. I recommend trying the outdoor onsen at Ryokan Kiritani Hakoneso (Note: Ryokan means traditional Japanese inn) to get a more genuine experience, and great food post-onsen. Nothing better than feeling toasty hot with snow falling around you.
⇒ Sakurajima (the active volcanic island opposite Kagoshima, which is well worth a visit) at the outdoors Furusato onsen, which combines ocean views with an outdoor shrine. Simply stunning.
I write a blog, Ethical Nippon, on ethical, green, sustainable, fair trade and eco living in Japan. My little project fostered during my time in this fascinating, magical and crazy country of Japan and now a little hub for my thoughts, observations and research on ethical and green issues on and in Japan. Twitter: @nadiabunce