Japan is all about convenience and customer service. These principles are even applied in the most lowly aspects of life, like for example using the toilet. Of course everyone knows the high-tech Japanese toilets with all the buttons, but what I saw in a roadside rest stop between Toyota City and Ise Jingu took things to a whole other level. This place had a ‘toilet roadmap’, which gave an overview of all the available toilets. It also included information about the facilities available in each particular stall, like the presence of a baby seat or if the toilet was high-tech or a traditional toilet where you have to squat. Amazing! And so convenient! I miss things like that from Japan.
Have you ever noticed that Japanese women never put their purse on the ground? It seems like a pretty straightforward thing but it really drew my attention in Japan. When Japanese women are in a café or restaurant, they will sit a bit forward on their chair and place their purse behind them on the chair, rather than placing it on the ground. The give up the comfort of resting against the back of the chair, to ensure their purse keeps clean. Taking into account this preference, many establishments provide special baskets for women to place their purse in. Very considerate and an excellent example of Japanese customer service.
Only when I started noticing the Japanese habit of never putting their purse on the ground, did I start thinking about how Belgian women do put their purse on the ground sometimes and how dirty that actually is. Since then, I take care to never place my own purse on the ground.
This Japanese purse etiquette is a good illustration of the importance of cleanliness and purity in Japanese culture. When it comes to daily habits, I find the Japanese often have very sensible views on cleanliness. After I left Japan, it took some getting used to a few ‘dirty’ Belgian habits again, like wearing shoes inside the house and shaking hands with strangers.
Japan has a type of sushi for every occasion. In the West, we often have a very limited view on sushi. When Belgian people think of sushi, they generally think of sushi rolls, as pictured below:
This type of rolled sushi, wrapped in nori seaweed, is called makizushi (which literally means ‘sushi roll’). In my experience however, this is not the most common kind of sushi in Japan. When you go to a sushi restaurant, you will mostly eat nigirizushi (meaning ‘hand pressed sushi’). Nigirizushi is a rectangular piece of rice with a large sliver of raw fish or seafood on top.
There is also a particular kind of nigirizushi that is quite common in sushi restaurants, called gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki means ‘warship roll’. It is the same oblong base of rice as nigirizushi, with a fish or shellfish topping, but wrapped in a piece of nori. The nori serves to keep the topping of the gunkanmaki in place. It is usually prepared with softer toppings or some kind of fish eggs, which benefit from the structural support of the nori. In the picture below you see a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe, but the most common kind is with salmon roe.
But despite the dominance of the nigirizushi, you do encounter makizushi (sushi rolls) in Japan. It is possible for a meal at a sushi restaurant to include a few pieces of makizushi, but they are mostly very plain and meant to top off your meal with something cheap and neutral tasting to fill up on, rather than being the focus of the meal. They are also quite thin. This kind of thin, plain makizushi is called hosomaki, which means ‘thin rolls’.
The variety of makizushi that we see most often in the West is called futomaki. This means ‘thick rolls’. In the West, these sushi rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, usually some kind of raw fish with several other ingredients in one roll. Sometimes they are fried as well. In Japan, futomaki are usually vegetarian. Futomaki is popular during the Setsubun holiday, when it is considered good luck to eat an entire, uncut futomaki roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.
There are some other types of sushi that I mostly came across outside of sushi restaurants. One of those is temaki. This literally means ‘hand roll’. I saw this kind of sushi at sushi parties at people’s homes. At a sushi party, people put all the ingredients for sushi out on the table, the guests compose their own sushi cone to their liking and eat it at once. The procedure is repeated until everyone has had their fill.
Inarizushi is another type of sushi that is fairly unknown in the West. Inarizushi does not contain any fish. It is an oval rice ball, wrapped in a pouch of fried tofu. It is one of the cheapest kinds of sushi. Inarizushi is a popular ingredient of homemade bento lunch boxes.
Another lesser known form of sushi is chirashizushi, which means ‘scattered sushi’. This is a bowl of sushi rice (i.e. rice seasoned with vinegar), topped off with raw fish. It is typical of Hinamatsuri, the doll festival on March 3rd, but it is also eaten the year round.
Finally we might consider sashimi, which is raw fish and shellfish. By many Westerners, sashimi is mistakenly considered to be a form of sushi. While sushi and sashimi are often served in the same restaurant, they are not the same thing. The main difference is that sushi always involves rice while sashimi is raw fish without rice. Sashimi must always be eaten with chopsticks while sushi may be eaten with the hands if one so chooses.
What is your favourite type of sushi?
Customer service is extremely important in Japan. Sometimes this leads to situations that seem a bit excessive in my eyes, like the amount of packaging they use or that time we saw a heater placed outside in the open air, to accommodate waiting customers.
In Japan, it is very popular to eat out for lunch. Since many restaurants have only very limited seating space, it is common to have to wait for a table at a good restaurant. If the restaurant is really small, it doesn’t have an indoor waiting area and customers have to wait outside. One cold January day around noon, we were waiting to have lunch at a restaurant in Hakone. There was a waiting area next to the restaurant, i.e. outdoors. To my great surprise, the staff had placed a kerosene burner in the waiting area. Although I was very thankful for this extra heat (it was so cold!), at the same time I felt a bit guilty about taking advantage of something that somehow felt a bit wasteful. The heater was pretty much attempting to heat the entire outdoors, which is of course futile. There was no tent, no enclosure, nothing that could even barely attempt to keep a bit of the heat localised.
After having discussed the situation with some Belgian friends, they pointed out that in Belgium sometimes we also make a bonfire outdoors or restaurants place heaters on their terrace in winter to enable people to sit outdoors. While this is true, I still felt an initial shock at seeing this heater in Japan. It is not the first time that I have felt torn between my love of Japanese customer service and my desire to not be wasteful. I would love to hear about other people’s experiences and opinions on the matter! Have you ever felt the same? How do you deal with these things? Or is it a non-issue?
In Japan, there is vending machine for everything, apparently. I was so surprised to see a vending machine for umbrellas! Very convenient though.
If you want to see other vending machines, I also wrote a post about a Japanese vending machine for beauty products.
I recently learned the Japanese saying ‘Even a road of thousand miles begins with a single step’. In Japanese it reads ‘Senri no michi mo ippo kara/ 千里の道も一歩から。’ I picked it up watching the dorama ‘Massan’ that is currently airing on NHK.
We are currently in that time of year where everyone evaluates the past year and makes plans for the coming year. In that context, the saying seems especially appropriate. No matter what difficulties we might be facing, if we just focus on taking step after step, we will steadily advance and eventually overcome them.
This idea of not giving up despite adversity and thus overcoming the difficulties in one’s life is a recurring theme in many Japanese dorama (soap opera) and anime. The optimism and perseverance that many anime characters display often inspires me.
The saying especially reminded me of the anime Hajime no Ippo. It tells the story of a boy, named Ippo, who is bullied at school, but finds confidence and a sense of purpose when he joins a boxing gym. As he climbs the ranks in the boxing community, every new fight poses a challenge for which he has to give his all. While I had no previous interest in boxing whatsoever, the anime was so captivating that I really became interested in boxing.
The title of the anime ‘Hajime no Ippo’ is a play on words that also refers back to the saying of ‘senri no michi mo ippo kara’. Since the name of the main character is Ippo, the title may refer to ‘the beginning of (the story of) Ippo’. But it could also mean ‘the first step(s)’.
So let’s take inspiration from this beautiful saying and consider every new day a chance to take our own (first) steps on the road that lies ahead of us.
Oden is a typical winter dish from Japan. It consists of several ingredients like daikon, tofu, konnyaku, eggs, etc., stewed in a light, soy-flavoured broth. One of the many wonderful things about oden is that it is so cheap. Each piece of oden costs between 75 and 100 yen (between 0,5 and 0,7 euro). It is also healthy, delicious, and it really warms you up in winter.
As the cold months set in, you see oden stands pop up in convenience stores all over Japan. When you want to buy some oden, you are supposed to serve yourself: just take a few pieces with the pincers provided by the store and put them in a cup. You may add some broth if you like. Then you tell or show the convenience store cashier what you took.
I discovered this self-service system only after having asked the poor employee from the convenience store around the corner from our house to serve me some oden on several occasions. Being as polite as any Japanese would be, and possibly also a little frightened of that bossy, tall foreigner, the employee dutifully served me every time. Until I saw someone else serve themselves and I realised how it actually worked. Embarrassing! But things like that are also very much part of life in Japan.
Oden illustrates two things that I love about Japan:
- It is so easy to get healthy and cheap fast food in Japan.
- I love how the Japanese celebrate the seasons with seasonal food. Here in Belgium, we can pretty much get any kind of food all year long. But the seasonal food in Japan really gives you something to look forward to. I also seemed to enjoy the food more because it was only available for a limited amount of time.