First Impressions of Japan

First Impressions of Japan

Below are some observations of what I found unusual or interesting about Japan from my visit there. I hope they entertain you and give you a glimpse of my experience in this wacky and wonderful country! If you’ve been to Japan and want to add anything to this list or share your own stories, please do in the comments section, I’d love to hear about it.

 
• People are really polite and go out of their way to be helpful, to the point where it can even become inconvenient, such as showing you how to get on a train you don’t want or directing you how to take the best photograph.
• If you ask for directions, you will probably be led in person right to your destination.
• Most people are very petite and it is rare to see someone slightly overweight, making it impossible to fit in as large westerners!
• There are vending machines absolutely everywhere, selling every kind of soft drink imaginable as well as beer, cigarettes, chocolate and even cooked food.
• The main train stations are massive, and we got lost more than once whilst trying to find the right exit.
• Each train station has its own little jingle which plays when a train arrives. Lots of these are from well known songs, and some can be quite majestic.
• In rural areas especially, there are lots of cyclists who never use the bike paths and choose to disturb pedestrian walkways. Instead of ringing the bell to ask you to move, they artfully weave in and out of the people who are walking.
• There is matcha tea flavoured everything!
• The toilets range from being very high tech (with self-opening, self-flushing, music playing and rinsing capabilities) to basic squat toilets. Sometimes in one bathroom there is a choice of both to suit what people are most comfortable with.
• Every street is lined with loads of cables and power lines, which make quite impressive silhouettes in the evening.
• Most things, such as shrines, shops and museums, close early around 4 or 5pm outside the city centre, making lazy lay-ins impossible.
• Except for in certain night-life areas, in the evenings the streets are completely silent and barely anyone is around.
• Women dress very fashionably – mostly in loose, plain clothing – and have immaculately clear skin.
• People can smoke in bars and drink on the street, which takes a while getting used to.
• People rarely talk on the train, but often have a nap instead. I also didn’t see anyone eat or drink at the station or on the trains.
• Of all the Japanese manners I learnt before arriving, very few were followed by modern Japanese people, such as not displaying public affection or ordering the same drink in the first round.
• If in doubt, nodding and smiling gets positive feedback in all social interactions even if you can’t say anything other than “sorry”, “please” and “thank you”.
• Despite there being no rubbish bins to be found, the streets are very clean and tidy. Our hosts were strict on waste disposal and it seems to be taken very seriously here.
• The rural landscape consists mainly of forested areas instead of the meadows, farmland and shrubbery of the UK countryside. It is very beautiful.
• People are obsessed with cute animals here since pet ownership isn’t as commonplace – meaning cat, hedgehog and owl cafes are common! However animal welfare for both pets and livestock is questionable…
• Every single temple and castle we visited had been burnt down due to lightning or war and rebuilt.
• Food is either soft, sticky or slimy. Finding hard food in a meal is a rare treasure!
• The Japanese diet relies heavily on rice, which constitutes for the bulk of both savoury and sweet food.
• Zebra crossings alert you that you may walk by playing various bird noises.
• Ponds often have thriving communities of terrapin and koi fish who beg for food by gathering under bridges and opening their mouths.
• You can buy a decent meal out for £7.
• As a hobby or treat, Japanese people hire traditional kimonos and accompanying outfits, and walk around pretty parks and temples in them taking selfies.
• Animals are huge, especially butterflies, wasps, fish, crows and ants. Strangely the cats are still skinny though.
• People seem to be quite pious and often visit shrines and temples to pray. There are all sorts of good luck charms you can buy from shrines to help with love, study, wealth, family and health.
• Nothing is done by halves in Japan, and everything from adverts to shop signs to themed cafes are taken to the extreme by being loud, bold and obvious at all times!

 

Read more about my travel experiences such as what you come to appreciate living in Cambodia, or Misa’s story of starting a business as a young Cambodian woman in rural Battambang.

 

Thanks for reading!

Are Selfies Bad?

Selfie culture has taken over our social media and become a part of everyday life. But should we embrace the fad or take a step back from this strange segment of online culture?

The growing prevalence of taking selfies does not mean that our culture is getting more vain or more image conscious – pride and vanity in our appearance has always been there, in every culture, in every time period. It is just that now we have found a new way to express it. However, showing our vanity through the medium of selfies is much more acceptable now, to the point that it is celebrated and encouraged through systems of approval such as ‘liking’ photos and posts on social media.

Selfies are after all a way of controlling our appearance, and therefore how we are perceived by others. It is only natural to want to show our best side in order to represent ourselves well. However, controlling our own image to the extent that we now take it only makes our standard of beauty (for ourselves and others) much higher. This promotes negativity about natural, uncontrolled, unflattering images of people, to the point that we will criticize and try to disassociate ourselves from “ugly” pictures by ‘untagging’ ourselves or censoring which photos we share. This high standard for our own image creates dissatisfaction about how we really look and an unwillingness to embrace our whole self, warts and all.

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My selfies

Whatever the consequences to our mental health, the fact is that taking selfies is now part of our culture. As sociable animals, it is a natural instinct to want to fit into our society and associate with our peers. Avoiding being in photos can result in people thinking that you do not fit into normal society or that you are purposely isolating yourself from it. This may lead to further social exclusion, meaning participating in selfies is in some way necessary for our social survival.

Furthermore, the act of taking selfies has become a bonding experience for people. It is a way of documenting and celebrating our relationships with people – whether long-term or fleeting – and showing other people that we have accepted them into our social circle. When we look back at the photographs, we get pleasure from remembering the connection and the happy memories that we associate with the image.

Like the act of taking a photo brings us closer together, sharing it gives us confirmation that we have been accepted by our society. Sharing a selfie is a way of getting direct feedback on the way we present ourselves through comments and ‘likes’ on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Receiving this (usually positive) feedback reinforces the idea that we are valued by, and fit into, our society.

It is definitely not healthy to need to receive this feedback, since it means our sense of self-worth is determined by something external to ourselves. A much better attitude would be to be comfortable in our own skin and to not need other people to openly tell us that we are looking great to believe it. However, such confidence is not so easily obtained, and therefore it is only natural to seek it from people who we also admire and who’s opinions we value.

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Documenting friendship through selfies

In the long run, the world is changing, and as animals who live in a complex and highly social society, we must adapt to fit into it. The alternative is to be left behind by our peers, and potentially to be considered as old fashioned, stubborn, strange or unsociable. When we stop to consider the act of taking selfies, we realize how shallow and strange the concept actually is. However, it only stems from a natural and very important desire to belong in human society.

In general, selfies do not harm anyone, they are not evil or cause cancer or destroy rainforests. However, neither do they promote acceptance about the way we naturally look and can actually diminish our sense of self-worth. Overall, we should not over-indulge in this modern pastime. We should not take ourselves or the images of ourselves too seriously, and remember that the number of ‘likes’ on our latest profile picture does not equate to our level of beauty.

Your true friends will be the ones enjoying your body positivity (and probably ‘liking’ all of those photos), but equally will be the ones who couldn’t care less if you never took a selfie in your life.

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Cambodian Table Manners

There are so many guides on how to be polite in Cambodia that it is easy to get confused and overwhelmed with information. After arriving, however, you realise that these rules are more relaxed than you initially realised, especially in the larger towns and cities, and that the locals are very understanding and forgiving of your ignorance to their traditional customs.

Despite this, knowing how to be polite in another country is important if you want to be able to integrate with their culture. This does not mean sacrificing your own values in order to be polite: you do not have to join in with social drinking if it against your religion, for instance, or eat something you don’t like. It is just about being sensitive towards their customs in order to not offend anyone unnecessarily.

Since eating is very important culturally (i.e. we do it a lot) and can have a plethora of social conventions, I’ve written down some table manners I’ve learnt here for when eating at someone’s home or in a restaurant.

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Some of the amazing fruit available from one of the markets in Battambang

 

Table Manners

Usually, a meal is made up of lots of dishes in the middle of the table which everyone helps themself to. At restaurants, if you order separately you will get a single plate of what you ordered like you would in the UK.
When the food is ready, the plates and cutlery (which are left in a cup of hot water on every table) are wiped with tissues and rice is served on every plate.
Travel guides I have read say that when the eldest person starts, so can everybody else, but what I have gathered is that when everybody has rice on their plates, you can eat.
If you are having rice with your meal, you push the food onto your spoon in your right hand with your fork in your left. If you are eating noodles, you either use noodles or a fork only.
Always take the food to your mouth with your right hand, even when using cutlery, because the left hand is seen as unclean. Similarly, when giving out food or money to anyone else you use both hands or just your right.
When sitting on the floor, the elders cross their legs and the younger generations tuck their legs to the side, feet pointing behind them. When the elders aren’t there though, and you are around peers, the standards relax and you can cross your legs.
Don’t cross your hands when at the table.
Don’t put your elbows on the table.
When eating, you keep filling your bowl and eating from it until you are full. Try to judge your appetite right and not leave anything in your bowl, since wasting food is not viewed highly here and often any untouched leftovers from the middle of the table will be saved for the next meal, or given to the animals.
After eating, offer to tidy and clean the dishes even if the host family start to do it first.

 

I have found that people in Cambodia are very anxious to look after their guests. Knowing that our diets are very different in the UK, people who have cooked for me and the other UK volunteers here always worry that we will not enjoy their food.

Although it is not a custom here to say thank you after a meal, it is still appreciated and it is good practise to tell your cook what you enjoyed about the meal, because they will often give you the same food again once they know that you like it!

 

If you know any more table manners to add to the list, feel free to comment below and I’ll add them on. Thanks for reading!