Heating the outdoors

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.

open air heater in Japan

A kerosene burner placed outside in the open air to help customers waiting to have lunch stay warm

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.

outside heater in Japan

Such a cold day!

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?

Umbrella vending machine

In Japan, there is vending machine for everything, apparently. I was so surprised to see a vending machine for umbrellas! Very convenient though.

Umbrella vending machine in Japan

Umbrella vending machine in Japan

If you want to see other vending machines, I also wrote a post about a Japanese vending machine for beauty products.

Japan in a word: Senri no michi… – Even a road of a thousand miles…

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.

massan NHK Japanese dorama

The title image for the dorama ‘Massan’. It’s about a foreign woman who marries a Japanese man and follows him to Japan. It is set in the 1920’s.

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.

hajime no ippo japanese anime

This is the main character of the anime ‘Hajime no Ippo’. He looks fierce when fighting, but otherwise he is a very good-hearted guy.

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.

senri no michi mo ippo kara

A calligraphy of the Japanese saying ‘senri no michi mo ippo kara’ – ‘Even a road of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. You read the calligraphy from top to bottom and from right to left.

Oden – wholesome winter food

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.

Oden japanese winter food

A display of oden, where you can clearly see the different ingredients. I admit it is not much to look at, but I assure you that it is delicious. At first I was a bit suspicious of oden myself but after I gave it a try, I was hooked! The daikon in the lower left corner is my favourite.

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.

oden stand in Japanese convenience store

An oden stand in Japanese convenience store. In the background on the right, in the ‘hot snack’ display, you see ‘man‘, which is another kind of delicious Japanese winter food.

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.

Japanese customer service: boxes and bags

The Japanese are masters of customer service. Shops are always thinking of new ways to make things more convenient for their customers. A good example of this is when we bought our rice cooker. It was a heavy machine in a big box. Rather than giving us a giant plastic bag, they attached a handle to the plastic wire around the box, which made it super easy to carry. I’d never seen such a thing in Belgium. Ah, the wonders of Japan!

Japanese box carrying device

Convenient handle for carrying boxes. So much easier and sturdier than a giant plastic bag!

Japanese box carrying device

Here’s a cute couple that happened to stumble into one of my pictures, carrying a box with a similar contraption.

There is something else that almost all shops do: when they give you a plastic bag, they attach a piece of tape below the handle to keep the bag closed. It makes the bag a lot easier to handle, especially when you are carrying several bags and are still trying to shop at the same time. Japanese people are so thoughtful!

taping the bag for convenience in Japan

Closing the shopping bag with a piece of tape makes it easier to carry and prevents object from falling out in case of vigorous movement.

taping the bag for convenience in Japan

Close up of the ingenious little piece of tape. It’s all in the details!

Some attentive readers pointed out that the purpose of the little piece of tape is also to prove that the product was paid for and to prevent theft by making it difficult to add unpaid items to the bag later on. Thank you everyone, for contributing and teaching me new things about Japan! :-)

Funny English in Japan

When living in Japan, you are constantly seeing funny English phrases everywhere. Many misunderstandings result from literally translating Japanese into English. Both languages have a totally different structure and many formal Japanese expressions have no English equivalent. If you speak a little Japanese, some of the strange English starts to make a lot more sense. Other examples of funny Japanese English are mix-ups between the letters R and L and phrases that can only be the result of the unedited use of online translation engines. There even exists a special website dedicated to the strange English that you can see in Japan and other Asian countries, called Engrish.com. The pictures below are a small sample of my own experience.

Japanese english or engrish

They probably mean Rice and Liquor, although the R-alliteration does have a nice ring to it.

Japanese english or engrish

We saw this sign in a national park in Hokkaido, where, due to geothermal activity, the water is so hot that it poses a serious risk of burn injuries. While they still get the message across, these words are so jumbled that they most likely just input the Japanese sentence into a translation engine which translated everything word for word into English. I wonder if the Chinese and Korean on this sign are equally jumbled.

But don’t get me wrong, although this kind of English puts a smile on my face, I am not ridiculing the Japanese for these little mistakes. As someone who has tried (and is still trying) to learn Japanese, I fully realize how different the two languages are and what a monumental task it is to be truly fluent in English when you are a native Japanese speaker (and vice versa). So nothing but respect for the many people in Japan who study English and do their best to speak English. Many of them are very good at it and certainly better than I will probably ever be at Japanese.

But back to the topic at hand: funny Japanese English. While I find these strange translations cute and funny, there is another really endearing way that English is used in Japan. When looking for a brand name or a slogan, the Japanese often throw a seemingly random selection of English words with a positive meaning together, giving wonderful results like ‘Freshness Burger’ as the name for a hamburger franchise and ‘Happiness Life’ as a brand of toilet paper.

freshness burger in Nagoya airport

A Freshness Burger restaurant in Nagoya airport. It was our favourite place for a quick bite to eat before a flight. We were first attracted by the funny and cheerful name but actually their burgers are quite nice.

funny english in japan toiletpaper

This Japanese toilet paper packaging made me smile. Happiness life, what more do you really need? We saw this toilet paper in a small town in Okinawa. The rest of the toilet space matched their choice of toilet paper (see below).

cheerful japanese toilet

The most cheerful and beautiful toilet space I have ever seen!

Cute Japanese roadblocks

When we were driving around Kyoto, we saw the cutest little roadblocks. They were shaped like frogs. While Belgian roadblocks are just functional and boring looking, the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to make something look cute. We were surprised and fascinated to suddenly see these funny frog-roadblocks while entering Kyoto. In Japan you never know what you’ll see next!

 

cute japanese roadblocks frogs

Imagine just driving down the road and suddenly seeing these guys staring at you.

cute japanese roadblocks frogs

A close-up of the frog-roadblocks

Japan is all about ‘cute’, or ‘kawaii’ as they call it. Grown adults, children, elderly people, they all engage in the cult of kawaii. When even the most serious of objects gets a touch of kawaii, it often leads to slightly comical scenes (for the Western beholder at least). But the cult of kawaii it is one the very typical things that make Japan what it is, and I am both fascinated and delighted by it.

cute japanese roadblocks paramedics

Here is another kind of Japanese roadblock that we saw on the same road. I am not sure if they are supposed to be paramedics (a bit ominous, don’t you think?) or just safety workers of some kind, urging us to be safe.