Although living in Okinawa is not without its faults, it is nevertheless an incredibly efficient and easy-to-live-in prefecture of Japan, and Jody and I have discovered numerous things that the Japanese get not just right, but almost perfect. Here’s a “Top-10” listing of some of our favorites.
1. Punctuality: Things in Japan run smoothly. Very smoothly. Yes it is true that the Japanese can be rather stoically set in their ways, and their rules almost certainly are made not to be broken, but without this high regard for law, order and adherence to cultural norms, living in Japan would be wholly different…involving a lot more wasted time. It is so very refreshing that the Japanese take punctuality totally seriously, where it is considered common courtesy to be early, regardless of what they may be early for. This is in large part why services in Japan work and work so well (and as they should), and schedules can be relied on without doubt.
For instance, getting maintenance completed on our condominium. A quick phone call to our property manager to set up an appointment, often the same-day, followed by the nearly on-time arrival of the maintenance man, usually a few minutes early, but sometimes ringing the doorbell to the minute. At home in the States we Americans need at least a half-day set aside to get cable or satellite TV. Here, we had a set appointment time, and yes, the technician was on-time. On-time deliveries, movers who show up ten minutes early, and public transport that’s seldom more than a couple of minutes off scheduled times all conspire to make living in Japan the “time” of your life!
Delays are inevitable though, even for Japan’s super-punctual rail system. However, in those rare cases, the rail companies and their operators sounding sincere and serious apologies throughout the trains while handing out “proof of lateness” slips to pass along to those suspecting bosses (or wives), proving that it was in fact the train company’s fault and not yours that you were late for work…. They can’t do anything for lipstick on your collar, though.
If you have been promised a service call on a certain day at a certain time, there is a very high probability that’s exactly when it will occur. Such dedication to timekeeping is admirable; I cannot express enough how refreshing it is to have everyone’s time so well-respected by most everyone else.
2. Vending Machines: Yes, there are the crazy web postings about all the crazy things that the Japanese sell through vending machines, but much to our combined chagrin, woman’s panty vending machines are not found here on every other street corner. However, if you need a thirst immediately quenched, you won’t have to travel more than about 100 yards…in any direction…for either a hot or cold beverage of your choice. From canned coffee (which the Japanese are gaga over), to almost anything that can be stuffed into a pop-top tin can, it can be found in vending machines throughout Okinawa. Prices are reasonably cheap at between 110-150 yennies (roughly $1.10-1.50), and some machines are even completely LCD screens, opting for CGI rather than showing those boring empty bottles and cans. Then there’s the slot machine-like feather lending further incentive for purchase by providing “let’s chance” for winning a free drink.
3. Convenience Stores: Back home in the states, convenience stores are primarily used for lotto tickets, smokes, booze and gas (more and more in that order), and generally are seen as a last resort for groceries, and then only around midnight when you realized you just used the last of the toilet paper in the house. Someway, somehow, we rationalize that the exorbitant prices charged by such establishments are worth the “convenience,” and equally accept the almost universally poor service from minimum-wage employees who certainly don’t want to be there any more than you do.
The Japanese micro-corner of the world in this respect is clearly upside-down and rotating backwards! Convenience stores in Japan are actually convenient. The convenience chains – Lawson, FamilyMart, CoCo, and even 7-Eleven and Circle K (when is the last time you saw one of those?) in mainland Japan are all kinds of wonderful and they’re absolutely everywhere. You know, a city block is really too far to walk, so let’s put TWO, one at either end. Make you cross a street for that yakitori craving? Certainly not: let’s put another on the other side! Prices are reasonable, ready-made meals using real food such as sushi, rice, and vegetables replacing our all-beige fried foods and pizza, are prepared fresh daily (rather than a day-off of a week ago), but it’s the services offered that really set these fine upstanding establishments apart. Some examples are:
Courier Services: need to send a package across town and don’t want to hassle with the post? Take your package to your local convenience store, have them measure it, slap a delivery label on it, and they will ensure a courier service picks it up for often same-day delivery!
Bill Pay: Need to pay your gas, electricity, internet or mobile phone bill? Do it here and it’s processed in seconds. The plus side? Your lights are back on in moments. The drawback? Cash only, my friends. See the handy ATM in the store…which do much more than just delivery cash. Okay, so the Japanese aren’t as savvy with online bill-pay…YET. I have little doubt in the end they will do even that better than we ever could.
Booking & Paying for Tickets: Many convenience stores have rather large ATM-style machines which can be used to look up and reserve things like flights, concert and theme park tickets, and other fun things to do. Some machines let you shop online, as long as the vendor takes “convenience store payment;” after securing your wants and needs online right there in the store, take the printed receipt to the cashier and hand your cash over to the clerk. Yes, these transactions often are cash-based, but with that there are worries about bad credit or debt here.
Printing: The convenience stores have online printing service websites where documents can be uploaded and saved, after which a pass code is provided. Putting a few yennies in the store’s printer along with your unique pass code, and your documents are printed in seconds.
4. Food: Yes, there are some odd dishes here; those WTF moments as you find a way (and place) to spit out whatever is assaulting your taste buds…like horse sashimi or weakly fried dough with some raw octopus inside. But seriously, the vast majority of Japanese food is simply superb – and this coming from a guy who doesn’t even eat the sushi! Here are a few favorites to sample:
Gyoza: Japanese gyoza are most often fried, something the Chinese may find insultingly unrefined (theirs are steamed), but there is not one single reason not to adore them. Available in wide variety, these hot doughy dumplings, soft on two sides and crispy brown on the third, are perfect anytime of the day or night. And they are sold day and night. All day and night! It is one of the staple dishes here, often making up a large portion of lunch or dinner.
Donburi: Bowls of fluffy white rice topped with strips of marinated meat(s), kimchi, or raw tuna. Some would call this dish Japan’s version of American soul food, these bowls of goodness are hearty and filling. The dish is so popular that there are fast food-style chains that specialize in it, such as Yoshinoya or Sukiya, at a decent price for a decent rendition.
Ramen: noodles in soup with toppings, deceptively simple but no less than decadently delicious. This is NOT your starving college student’s soup. The soup is available is probably hundreds of varieties across Japan, but is usually pork, soy, salt, or miso based, and topped with “pork bone,” among other things. Served with 6 or 12 gyoza and a meal is made.
Sashimi & Sushi: Sashimi, strips of raw fish, usually served with wasabi and soy sauce, is only a distant cousin of sushi, perhaps Japan’s most famous dish. Sushi is special rice either topped with or wrapped around ingredients like fish and vegetables. Even cheap conveyor-belt sushi here is good (and at a buck-o-five, it’s the bargain of Japan’s culinary world), but sushi made by chefs who have trained for decades and use only the finest ingredients is nothing short of divine (or so my wife tells me). I’m not sure we found such a place…yet.
Shabushabu: Enjoyed socially and family style, shabushabu consists of vegetables and wafer-thin strips of raw meat cooked by the diner in mere seconds in a communal boiling stock, fondue style. Using various toppings and seasonings (like sesame sauce!), this type of soup tastes absolutely wonderful and seems to warm your very soul.
5. No Shoes Indoors: Yes, it takes some getting used to, and yes, for some westerners it results in a complete change in their footwear selection (laces are BAD). However, if you stop and think about it, the idea of walking around your home wearing the footwear soiled with the outside world is kind of gross. Or, think of it this way: every time you sit with your shoe-clad feet up on your sofa, chair or bed, what makes you so sure you didn’t step in something’s guts or defecate while outside?? Or, look at it this way: wearing you shoes all around your house is basically the same as taking all your rugs, carpets and furniture outside and expecting them to stay clean while using them….
In the majority of Japanese homes – and also in schools, restaurants and some businesses – people remove their outdoor shoes before entering the building proper. While not unique to Japan, there is a clear desire here to draw a clear line between the clean uchi (“inside”) and unclean soto (“outside”).
But this notion carries on even within dwellings: that the home should never be unnecessarily dirtied is also reflected in the layout of a typical Japanese bathroom. Here baths are for relaxation and meditation, not for cleansing (why sit in a tub of your own grime). Everyone showers – the cleansing method of choice – before entering the bathtub. The toilet, the dirtiest place in the home, is usually found in a separate room from the bath, shower and sink.
6. Customer Service: working concurrently with the Japanese sense of punctuality, there’s something inherently awesome about having the staff at McDonald’s treat you like royalty…or is that Burger King? Speaking of Burger King, their drive-thru here on Kadena Air Force Base is probably the most efficient service I have ever witnessed, worthy of further study and publication with an aim to educate the American fast-food industry. Seriously, it moves that fast, even during the lunchtime crunch, which is HUGE here with limited eating options, and even more limited drive-thru’s. If there’s one thing you can say about the Japanese, it’s that they really know how to look after their customers.
Speaking of customers, whether they are from Japan or not, all receive polite greetings and smiles. Japanese employees are quick to find something to apologize for even when it’s clear that the customer is, in fact, in the wrong. Have a problem at the bank or post office? The staffs there will do their best to find a solution for you rather than simply apologizing and trying to move on to the next customer…an all-too-common occurrence in the States. Gas stations are still full-service; you never leave your car. The attendant cleans your windshield, side-view mirrors and even headlight housings; they run their cloths over your wipers, and finally inquiry about any garbage you’d like thrown away. And most amazingly, this same attendant will stand next to your car and bow as you drive away!
7. Toilets: While bureaucracy was invented in the West but perfected in the East, the exact same thing can be said about toilets. Japan’s “space-age toilets” are truly things of tremendous technological achievement. Heated seats, with not one but two spray functions whose pressure, warmth and direction can be controlled, ambient noise to help hide any embarrassing bottom burps, lids that open automatically as you enter the room in a reverse bow, and multiple flush options to help save water (after wasting all that electricity) make using the facilities in Japan an adventure in itself (see my blog dedicated to this very fact here). There is plenty of debate still offered as to the health benefits of the old-school Asian squat-toilets, which unfortunately still exist here in droves, sometimes to a Westerner’s consternation. But it’s just impossible to resist tinkering with the plethora of buttons and dials, even if the health and well-being of the family jewels might “hang” in the balance!
8. Taxis: They are not cheap (nor too expensive), but they are cool for one and one reason alone – automatically opening doors! After hailing a cab that has come to a stop at your curbside, the taxi’s passenger door will automatically open. Like unlock and completely open, swinging wide to allow for easy and quick entry. Once you’re safely inside, the driver uses a lever to close the door after you. Yes, it’s a small gesture, but it makes a world of difference and makes one feel like a minor celebrity.
There is no creep factor in the Taxi industry here, nor or foreigners utilized in revolving-door human resource staffing. Rather, being a taxi driver is a recognized and appreciated profession in Japan, reflected in that most drivers wear suits, complete with tie and white gloves…and sometimes even a vest and hat. Oh, and as a side note, all Taxis in Japan are natural-gas driven, and while this does sacrifice some trunk luggage space, the no-emission nature of the fleet is very much appreciated in the car-choked streets of Japan’s greater urban areas.
9. Recycling & Waste Management: Japan’s system for garbage collection and disposal is one to be admired, and quite possibly, emulated. Their garbage trucks are covered with stickers of cute creatures, and play music reminiscent of the ice cream trucks of yesteryear Americana. Most cities require residents to sort their household waste into distinct categories: burnable, plastics, PET bottles, glass, aluminum, and paper/cardboard. We, on the other hand, living in an American-centric high-rise here in Okinawa, only sort between burnable and unburnable. But even then, our trash is still sorted at pickup, which also allows for some very enterprising (and early rising) Okinawans the chance to collect on valuable metals and such in our building’s collective waste bins since only the thinnest see-through plastic bags are allowed to be used for refuse.
While sorting may seem like “work,” it really doesn’t make sense to try to cheat this system by being lazy. The refuse collectors will often leave wrongly bagged items behind, probably to shame you in front of your neighbors, forcing you to either commit hari-kari, or, more likely, into doing the right thing next time. Further, most towns each sell their own refuse bags in local supermarkets, DIY and convenience stores, and encourage proper recycling by making bags for cans and plastics much cheaper than the more general “burnable” bags. Besides being an adhered-to cultural norm, in Japan, it seriously pays to be green.
10. Drink & Drinking: For Americans, public imbibing of alcohol is most likely illegal, and even if it isn’t, it is certainly frowned upon. But in Japan it’s considered perfectly OK to crack open a beer in the park, on the street, or in a bullet train. Perhaps it’s simply that so few Japanese make a nuisance of themselves and get violent (or naked, or BOTH) after drinking…. Whatever the reason, thanks to this relaxed approach to public drinking, parks all over Japan are filled with respectable revelers, primarily made up of families rather than just rowdy spring break students. Here in Okinawa, our front yard Sunabe Seawall is the place of choice to enjoy a cold one (or three) along with the most beautiful sunsets over the East China Sea. No brown-bagging your booze here; in Japan it’s “beer and cheers” as and when you see fit, and both Jody and I think that’s progressively refreshing over the prototypical over-indulgent and uncontrollable American drunk…which has to be constrained and often restrained by Johnny-Law.