On terraces in Japan, or the lack thereof

The weather in Belgium is beautiful at the moment. The sun is shining and the temperature is finally going over 20°C. Having long, dark winters, Belgians tend to go a little crazy when the weather becomes nice like this. One of the symptoms is the mass migration to pub terraces everywhere, to sit in the sun and enjoy a beer with friends. We even have an expression for it: ‘een terrasje doen’, which literally means ‘to do a little terrace’.

terrace_belgium

Belgian summer habits: sitting outside in the sun, enjoying a beer with friends. A side-effect of this is lots of people with bright red sunburn after exposing their delicate winter skin to the direct sunlight for several hours.

Despite my love for Japan and my efforts to adjust to Japanese culture as much as possible during my stay, my Belgian background stirred itself from time to time. So come March or April of my year in Japan, when the weather in Nagoya started getting really nice after a relatively cold winter, I started to get serious ‘terrace withdrawal’. It was so hard to find a pub terrace in Japan! The Japanese seem to have no inclination whatsoever to sit in the sun with friends to enjoy a drink. In fact, rather the opposite is the case: they try to avoid the sun as much as possible, to protect their skin from UV damage. Another contributing factor may be the hot humid summers in Japan. From the middle of June to roughly the middle of september, outside temperatures can be unbearable and air-conditioned spaces are preferred. But still, spring and autumn are very nice in Japan and would lend themselves perfectly to sitting outside. Might the lack of terraces also be related to the Japanese notion that it isn’t polite to eat or drink when you are walking around? And therefore also not polite when sitting outside? Or is this notion dated and doesn’t apply to Japanese culture anymore? I’m sorry to say I am not very well informed about this point.

I found the lack of outside sitting space in Japan so noticeable, that I took pictures whenever I did find a terrace. You will notice below that I have exactly two pictures. Apart from one terrace in front of a big building in Nagoya, where nobody was sitting, Starbucks seemed to be the only place that offered outside seating. But it looked far from inviting. The cozy Belgian terraces were one of the few things that I really missed from Belgium.

Japanese terrace in Nagoya

A Japanese terrace in Nagoya, that actually looks quite inviting, apart from the fact that nobody is sitting there! Might it be connected to the Tully’s Coffee in the background? I’m sorry to say I did not investigate further due to time constraints at the time.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

The Starbucks in Toyota City, located on the walkway between the two train stations in the city. It was one of the few times that I saw the possibility for outside seating in Japan.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

Another view of the Starbucks terrace in Toyota City. It doesn’t look very inviting, does it?

I wonder, do other countries also have this terrace culture, or is it specific to Belgium? How did you experience these things in Japan? Please share your stories in the comments!

 

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Japanese women don’t put their purse on the ground

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.

Japanese purse baskets

The woman on the left has placed her purse behind her on the chair. Below the chairs are suspended baskets, intended as a place to keep your purse.

japanese purse basket

Another café where they offer a convenient basket to keep your purse off the ground.

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.

 

Signs of spring: Field Horsetail or Tsukushi

Japanese people are a lot more aware of the seasons than Belgian people are. While the first signs of spring are met with joy everywhere, Japanese culture takes it to another level by singling out a great number of tell-tale sings of spring that people can look for and rejoice about. Famous examples are the first cry of the uguisu (a little bird, called the Japanese bush warbler in English) and the first blossoms, which are usually ume (plum blossom). But even the less glamorous signs of spring are noticed and welcomed with open arms. Like the inconspicuous little plant called tsukushi (土筆) or field horsetail.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

The field horsetail by the side of a road. The plant is called tsukushi in Japanese and its scientific name is Equisetum arvense – picture from http://blog.livedoor.jp/ak0503hr0406/archives/51385999.html

This little plant pops up by the side of the road all over Japan in early March. It was first brought to my attention by my lovely English students. They are a group of senior citizens and they still recall the days when people used to eat this plant. It was an inexpensive food source in times when Japan was not yet the land of plenty that it is now.

I also noticed the Field Horsetail on the wonderful Facebook page ‘Seasonal food in Japan’. Apparently the page is owned by a Japanese company that produces the ‘Taste Calendar’ (味のカレンダー). Their website appears to be in Japanese only but their Facebook page sometimes contains information in English. I wonder if the inclusion of the Field Horsetail in such a trendy calendar means that it is gaining in popularity again. In Belgium, there is a trend of bringing ‘forgotten vegetables’, such as parsnip or celeriac, back the daily menu. It would be interesting to see a similar trend in Japan.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

Last year the horsetail was assigned to the 8th of March on the Japanese Taste Calendar.

Furry business

“Japanese women love to wear fur.” Why have I chosen this simple statement as the topic for an entire blog post? Because the difference in attitude towards fur between Japan and Belgium (and I think Europe in general) is a striking cultural difference.

A girl wearing a fur scarf.

In Japan, fur usually appears as a trimming on coats and gloves, rather than as a full fur coat. Fur scarves, as seen in this picture, are also popular. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in winter fashion. Image from www.tokyofasion.com (click on image to go to site)

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in Japanese winter fashion. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

I have had a lot of trouble explaining to Japanese women why most Belgians frown upon the practice of fur as a fashion statement. In Belgium, fur coats are usually only worn by wealthy, elderly ladies; possibly belonging to the aristocracy. Fur is simply not considered politically correct, of course relating to concerns regarding animal suffering. I think fur is also considered a tad decadent. We Belgians are a simple people (*insert self-mockery*).

Most European people, on the other hand, find it difficult to understand why Japanese people wouldn’t think twice about wearing fur. Here is a nation that cherishes the seasons, has dedicated vast amounts of poetry to the beauty of nature and is collectively overcome by a screaming fit of ‘kawaii!!!!’¹ if exposed to so much as the slightest hint of a furry creature; yet wearing fur is considered the most normal thing in the world. Indeed I have been scolded by a Japanese girl for admitting to occasionally eating rabbit, while she herself was wearing a fur scarf that looked an awful lot like rabbit fur. It is one of the many contradictions in Japanese culture that one simply cannot make sense of and that contribute to the enigma of this fascinating country.

As with most cultural differences, I have evolved from initial amazement and slight shock to a general acceptance of the habit. I even went as far as purchasing a pair of rabbit fur-trimmed gloves myself, my reasoning being that if I eat rabbit, I shouldn’t have a problem with wearing rabbit fur either. I did draw the line at the beautiful white coat in the picture below. I checked the label when I went to try it on, only to find out it was fox fur. My captivation with the coat was instantly dispelled.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. That's a bridge I won't cross.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. Although I think the coat is gorgeous, the fact that the collar is fox fur really put me off.

¹kawaii means cute

 

Return of the mukade

There are few Japanese animals as fabled and feared among expats in Japan as the poisonous Japanese centipede (called mukade in Japanese). Proof of this widespread fascination is the number of people who find their way to this blog on a daily basis, looking for mukade information.

Having been a Japan geek long before moving to Japan, I had of course heard of mukade. Some of you might remember my elation when I saw my first mukade only a few days into my stay in Japan. I can assure you that I felt equally elated about never meeting a mukade since that day. Until a few months ago, that is.

It is a beautiful day in May. My parents and I are having a walk in the forest, in the lovely town of Asuke (Toyota City).

forest in Asuke

Forest walk in Asuke

Suddenly my mother calls out. “Look at this interesting animal I have found”. What could it be? A butterfly? A squirrel perhaps? I rush over to see what it is. I catch a glimpse of a shining brown exoskeleton and bright orange legs. It’s the dreaded mukade! And a big one too. “Stay back!” I shout. “It’s a mukade”.

mukade

The mukade, who almost appears to be posing for the photograph

But there is no need for fear. The mukade completely ignores us. He’s just scrambling about the leaves, probably looking for a good place to hide from us. This provided me with some wonderful photo opportunities. The previous mukade I met (in the supermarket) ran straight towards me when I tried taking a picture.

After a year of living in Japan, I think it is safe to say that at least in the Toyota City and Nagoya area, there is no need to fear the mukade. I don’t know anyone who has had problems with mukade (apart from one horror story about ‘the mukade mountain’, an overgrown mountain that is apparently teeming with mukade and is causing some problems for the nearby apartment building).

So why are expats so afraid of this animal? Speaking from my own Belgian point of view, we are not used to giant, poisonous bugs. The most dangerous bugs we have around here are mosquitoes. In hot and humid Japan, the sheer size of the bugs is a trigger for expat imagination. And then we find out they are poisonous as well! That is one advantage to being back in Belgium: no more scary bugs!

So much sauce!

A trip to a Japanese supermarket is quite the adventure. The aisles are filled with unknown products. I feel especially overwhelmed when standing in front of the sauce stand. Any Japanese supermarket will have up to three aisles that are filled with nothing but sauce.

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

There are so many different kinds: a wide variety of soy sauce (dark, light, low salt, …), salad sauce, sauce with orange aroma, sesame sauce, sake derivates like mirin, … The list is endless. Liquids and sauces are the main condiments in Japan (as opposed to the West where we mostly use herbs). And of course I have no idea how to use most of these sauces. Even if you have come prepared and looked up a recipe beforehand, finding the sauce that the recipe requires can be quite a challenge, as most of the labels are written in kanji (chinese characters). To sum things up, facing this wall of sauce is both awe-inspiring and daunting at the same time.

tsuyu sauce in a Japanese supermarket

Most of these sauces are different brands of ‘tsuyu’ (つゆ), a dipping sauce for noodles

Ponzu sauce in Japanese supermarket

Another sauce stand, mostly ponzu (citrus sauce) and sushi vinegar

After returning to Belgium last month and seeing the selection of cheese in Belgian supermarkets, I imagine Japanese people living in Belgium must experience a similar sensation when being confronted with this vast array of cheese for the first time. How would they know the difference between young and aged gouda, or that camembert is actually supposed to smell like that. Some cheese is for cooking, other cheese is to put on bread. There is Italian cheese, French cheese, Dutch cheese, … There are so  many options, while most Japanese supermarkets only offer one kind of cheese: a very soft, synthetic cheese, with every slice in its individual plastic wrapper.

If you see a confused looking foreigner in the supermarket, desperately staring at the cheese stand (in Belgium) or at the sauce stand (in Japan), please rescue them! They need your help!

white cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

A selection of white and blue cheese

dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

Different kinds of Dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

This is not the end

My recent blog post about goodbyes has led to some speculation about the end of this blog. But fear not my friends! (Or alternatively, depending on how you feel about this blog, ‘Sorry to disappoint you!’) No such thing is the case. A goodbye to Japan does not mean a goodbye to blogging for me.

Japan has provided me with endless inspiration for many blog posts to come. Photographs and notes have been diligently prepared. Besides that, the return to Belgium has already sparked new ideas like a series about ‘Japan in Belgium’ and stories about culture shock and the differences between Japan and Belgium. Looking at Belgium through Japanese eyes certainly gives me a new perspective.

So, dear readers, I hope you will stick with me to see what the future holds. I for one am anxious to find out!

Image from http://www.crossed-flag-pins.com (click on the image to go to their site)