How Japan Surprised Me

*I wrote this article in October; then I let it fester in my drafts folder for a few months.  It was timely when I wrote it, I swear!*

I came across an article this week, about ways in which Japan will surprise travellers.   There are a pieces of the article that are very accurate.  The “expensive, yet affordable” bit is right on the money.   Unfortunately  I think the article falters in the same places that so many pieces about Japan struggle.  It does well in describing Tokyo, but it makes sweeping generalizations that just do not hold up outside  of the major cities.   It reiterates all of the usual clichés about Japan:  Technology! Tradition! Nintendo! Kimono! However, despite the title,  I was disappointed that the article fails to dig deeper and find the aspects of Japan that might actually surprise travellers.  The following is my take on the situation, how Japan continues to surprise me.

 Stylish in ways you have never seen

A Crocs display in a shop.

A Crocs display in a shop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This first heading almost made me do a spit-take.   “Stylish in ways I have never seen” is exactly how I would describe Japanese fashion, but I don’t think the author is using it as a euphemism, at least not in the same way I do.  The author discusses   “looks that reveal detailed attention to beauty and a person-as-canvas philosophy.”  In Tokyo and Kyoto, where the author seems to have travelled, I will admit that fashion is spectacular.  However, travellers leaving the major urban centres may be surprised to see that the rest of Japan is not stocked with Harajuku girls. When I first arrived in Toyama I remember being struck by the prevalence of Crocs.  To be fair, they are a very practical choice of footwear in one of the rainiest parts of the country.   Still, I think we can all agree that Crocs do not belong in a conversation about style, even (especially)  if they are Hello Kitty-themed. Yet crocks are a staple of Japanese fashion, at least in my corner of the country.

Technology meets tradition — and fantasy

Yes.  And no.

Japan has had ultra fast bullet trains connecting major urban centres for decades now.   On the flip side,  the train I take to work looks like it could have been an alternate home for the Boxcar Children.  Just as with fashion, technology outside of the major cities in Japan can take you back in time, to a time when everything was a bit slower, and a lot less convenient.   The best example is  money.  Japan is a cash-based society.  Perhaps because of low crime rates, people have had little push to move towards alternate forms of payment.  Almost no small stores accept credit cards, internet banking is relatively uncommon, and a debit card system is unheard of.  Instead, people carry around massive amounts of cash, a bank card and their bankbook.    Yes, you read that correctly,  a bankbook, like the one I received when I opened up My First Bank Account in 1988 and promptly lost because it was already becoming  obsolete.

Not just big buildings and highways

In the CNN article, the author discusses the architectural wonders of Japan’s cities, as well as the beauty of the country’s gardens and temples.  All of this is true.  However, what really surprised me about Japan was its natural beauty.  The Japanese summer provides some of the lushest green landscapes I have ever seen.  If you step outside of the city you will be surrounded by endless rice paddies.  In Toyama we are spoilt by mountain and ocean views.   As a Canadian, I have a tendency to be a snob when it comes to natural wonders, but Japan can certainly hold its own in terms of rural landscapes.

The cleanest place in the world.

And no review of Japan’s virtues would be honest without mentioning Japan’s toilets, a marvel of modern technology and a cause for profound gratitude from travellers  This is no place for a disquisition on Japan’s sanitary technology other than to offer a heartfelt arigato. Thank you.

Ok.  I agree that Japan is amazingly clean.  I also agree that any review of Japan ought to mention toilets. However, I don’t think the two thoughts belong side-by-side.  Not because the toilets are unclean; by global standards they are immaculately kept.  The issue is that toilets merit an entire chapter.  It is true that many Japanese homes and businesses have beautiful, western style toilets.  The toilet seats are often equipped with heating  and other rear-pampering luxuries, which really deserve an entire post to explain. (In the context of a Japanese building with no central heating, for example, a heated toilet seat seems much less extravagant.)   However, the flip side is that many public wash-rooms have traditional squat toilets, which can be daunting to unsuspecting Westerners.  There is a hilarious, but useful wikiHow about mastering the squatter.

Toilet in Japan

Toilet in Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like in some other parts of Asia, public toilets in Japan often do not have toilet paper.  Sometimes there is a dispenser outside of the stall, but it is wise to always carry tissues on your person.  Soap is also a rarity in Japanese public restrooms.  For a country that insists on wearing masks the second somebody sniffles, there is a shocking lack of soap in public facilities.  Hand sanitizer will become your best friend.

All of these things, good and bad, are just a part of living in Japan.  I rarely think about any of them in daily life.  Well, except for the toilet paper, it is important to keep that one point in mind, lest I be caught unprepared.  The internet if full of Crazy Japan stories, but my experience here has not been all that crazy.  Almost everything that has surprised me at first has made sense once I learned about the cultural background.  Again, except for the toilet paper issue; I still don’t know why toilet paper is not amply supplied.


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Happy as a clam!

So, things around these parts have been busy. Certainly the busiest that I have been in a long time. Not with anything super important, just life. Still, I have been feeling a bit like this lately:

courtesy of Gemma Correll

I have booked my travel for winter. I have been hoarding vacation days like a squirrel but it is going to pay off with my (almost) 4 week vacation in December.  I am beyond excited to visit my dad in Thailand.  I will also be hopping up to Cambodia for about a week.  I have not been this excited about a trip since my first trip to Europe.

So, anyhow, more posts are on the way. I am still alive and doing dumb stuff and looking forward to more adventures so I can do dumb stuff in more cool places.  That’s the update!

ETA: I really wish that WordPress had a warning: Are you SURE you want to publish this with stupid typos?

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One less item on the bucket list

I did something truly remarkable a few weeks ago. I have tried to write a post about it. Unfortunetly, I have been too busy to write the post that this event deserves. So, here I will tell the story the exact same way I have been telling my elementary students.

1) This summer I went to Mount Fuji.

Setting forth into the night.

2) We climbed the mountain at night.

Headlamps snake their way up the mountain

3) There were many people on the mountain.

About 10 000 people climbed through the night to see the sunrise.

4) We saw the sun rise from top of the mountain.

Sunrise from 3, 776 meters

I wish that could find the time to write a proper post. I had a lot of intense feelings about the climb. I did not like climbing through the night, nor did I enjoy climbing with thousands of other people on the trail. However, I am glad that I did it and very proud of the accomplishment. Someday, when I am old and grey, I will show people this picture and tell them about that time I hauled myself up a volcano in the middle of the night.

We did it!


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Summer in Japan is… hot. I have mentioned the heat before.  In fact, I wrote an entire post about the heat and how it makes me stupid. Then I deleted it because upon re-reading it, I realized the post (accurately) portrayed me as a moron.  Despite the heat, there are some really lovely things about summer in Japan.

1) Cicadas:  these little guys create a  love ’em or hate ’em response; I love ’em. Cicadas are everywhere in Japan, especially if you live in a more rural setting.  Unlike some of Japan’s other creepy-crawlies, cicadas are harmless aside from their noise.  Their constant hum reminds me of crickets or frogs at home.   There is something really peacefull about looking out over the rice paddies and listening to the cicadas.

2) Rice paddies:  The Japanese countryside is filled with rice paddies.  Even within Toyama city, there are rice paddies taking up free spaces between homes.  Unlike most of Canada, where the summer heat starts to brown the grass by August, Japan stays lush and green all summer, thanks to the rice fields.

Rice and other greenery in Takayama, Gifu.

3) Festivals:  Every weekend there is some sort of festival going on in Japan.  Last weekend there were at least 3 major festivals in Toyama Prefecture alone.  Festivals in Japan are fun because you can see people of all ages eagerly  engaging in traditional activities.  Also, it is a great excuse to eat festival foods, which are almost always fried and delicious.  (Yakisoba is my favourite.)

Dancers at the Owara Kaze no Bon Festival in Yatsuo, Toyama

4) Fireworks:  I suppose I could have grouped fireworks in with festivals, but I feel like they deserve their own mention.  Fireworks are immensly popular in Japan.  In the last 10 days I can think of at least 3 major fireworks displays in the area.  Sometimes the fireworks are a part of a larger festival, and sometimes they are a stand-alone event.   The japanese word for firewordks is hanabi (花火,) which translates to “fire flower.”  It’s a much nicer and more accurate description than fireworks, don’t you think?

Fireworks fill the sky at Toyama City’s annual Hanabi Festival on August 1st.

5) Seasonal goodies:  Watermelon is really popular in Japan.  In some areas it is common to salt watermelon to bring out the flavour. (Perhaps this is not a Japan-only thing, but I first heard about it here.)  Anyhow, Pepsi has released its summer seasonal flavour and, you guessed it, it’s Salty Watermelon!  Unlike my last seasonal Pepsi adventure, Salty Watermelon was surprisingly delicious.  I will probably buy it again!

Salty Watermelon Pepsi

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the Japanese summer in a nutshell: heat, rice,  festivals,  fireworks, fun food, and crazy insects!


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Right off the bat, I will start by saying this post has no clear goal.  I certainly am not planning it out before I write it,sorry.  What can I say? It is hot.  When the temperature goes above 25 degrees, my brain goes on summer holiday.

So, life in Toyama right now is moving along.  I have been in Japan for almost a year now.  Soon there will be a new crop of people arriving in Toyama and I will be one of the experienced folks, who supposedly know the ropes. Ha!

But anyhow, I have been planning a trip to climb Mount Fuji. The planning has hit a few hurdles, but we seem to be progressing well now. However, when I was talking to a Japanese friend about this trip she looked at me with concern and told me that “Mount Fuji is not safe right now.”  (I am not abusing the quotation marks; those were her exact words.) She proceeded to explain that last year’s earthquake left a large crack in Mount Fuji.  This concerned me.  After all, large cracks in volcanoes are not to be treated lightly.

So I went home and got my Google on and found out that the crack is really no big deal. It is not related to volcanic activity and is really nothing to be stressed about.  (Read the article here if you don’t believe me.)

However, in my research, I also found this article, about the installation of new toilets at the 5th Station on Mount Fuji.  This is great news, as I hear the bathrooms at the 5th station were in serious need of upgrading. However, let’s pay special attention to this part:

The facility, built at the fifth station of the Fuji-Yoshida mountaineering route on the Yamanashi Prefecture side of the mountain, reopened to the public Friday following a ceremony to mark the completion of the work, a Yamanashi prefectural government official said.

Remember how I wrote about the opening ceremony in Japan?  I bet you didn’t believe me when I said that they happen all the time, did you? Well, officials held an opening ceremony for NEW TOILETS.  I do not want to undermine the importance of sanitation, but REALLY?

Anyhow, my school held closing ceremonies for the spring term on Friday.  That means it is summer vacation now. Although, it must be said that it is summer vacation in name only.  My first and second year students will still be at school most days for club activities and my third years will be here studying all summer. That, of course, means that teachers in Japan work all summer as well.  I cannot complain though, I am saving my vacation days for a fantastic adventure in December.  (Spoiler: it involves finding out whether or not Santa can find me in Thailand. I have faith in him.)

Oh, and I wrote a short write-up on my visit to the Space Science Museum in Hakui, Japan.  You can read about the museum at the TRAM, Toyama AJET’s magazine.

Hopefully I will write more often this summer. I will try anyhow.  No promises though.  After all, it is hot and my brain does not know the difference between “summer vacation” in Canada and “summer vacation” in Japan.

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It’s called a tuque, not a beanie!

Happy Canada Day, to Canadians at home and abroad! (It will still be July 1st in Canada when I publish this.)

A few years ago there was a Canadian politician who was running to be the leader of his party.  One of the  arguments against him was that he had spent a considerable amount of time living and working outside of Canada.  I have never understood that argument because I have never believed that geography is what makes us Canadian.  In fact, I have never felt more Canadian than I do now, living on the other side of the world.

I spend a lot of my time these days with non-Canadians.  (Captain Obvious calling!) Of course, living in Japan means that I am surrounded by Japanese people, but even at events designed for and by the foreign community, I am often the only Canadian in the room.

The foreign community in Toyama is predominantly American, with a smattering of folks from other countries.  Generally, this is a non- issue. I hardly consider my nationality to be the most interesting part of my identity.  Still, being Canadian shapes who I am and how I am perceived.  On Friday I was at a party and when I was on my way out I asked the host “the train is at 9:45, I can make it to the station by then, eh?”  The entire room stopped its conversation and looked at me.  “YOU JUST SAID EH!”

And just like that, my cover as a generic North American was busted and I morphed into an igloo-dwelling, French-speaking, maple-eating lumberjack.

Great White North album cover with Bob (left) ...

Any excuse to reference Bob and Doug McKenzie, really.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The thing is, I am a stereotype. I speak both English and French; I love canoeing;  I’ve had several up-close and personal encounters with moose;  and, yes, I have been known to dress like a lumberjack.    So I have a lot of trouble explaining that while I fit a lot of Canadian stereotypes, it’s a very big country with a very diverse population.

Ugh… diverse population.  I hate myself for writing that cliché but I really don’t know how to avoid it when discussing Canada and being Canadian.  Unfortunately, the trouble with explaining cultural diversity is that it is complicated.  I am happy to talk about it in a conversation with co-workers or other people who really want to have a conversation, but so often that is not the case.  Most discussion of culture in my classroom is less of a conversation and more of a sound-bite.  It is tough to explain Canada  in one simple, ESL-friendly statement.

In the winter I represented Canada at an international fair in Toyama.  The Canadian embassy had sent an enormous box of promotional materials, filled with things like posters, stuffed animals, inukshuk carvings, and an Anne of Green Gables hat (complete with dangling red braids.) There were so many materials that not even half of them would fit on my table so I had to make some tough choices.  What would I choose to represent Canada?  A plush polar bear, canadian goose, or beaver? (The polar bear won because geese are jerks.  I lent the beaver to the Oregon booth.)

Living and working outside of Canada has made me think about being Canadian in a way that I never did before.   When I see textbooks  casually saying things like “with so much winter, it is not surprising that Canadians are good at winter sports,”  I want to point out that the weather in Victoria is generally a lot nicer than the weather in Hokkaido.  Or, when my American friends poke fun at my “Canadian kindness” I sometimes feel the need to kick a puppy*, just to prove them wrong.

At the same time, Canada is a big and tough country to understand.  If it weren’t for all those ridiculous stereotypes, the rest of the world really would think we were just America Jr.  I guess my question is this: Which stereotypes do we want to debunk, and which ones do we let slide in the name of national identity?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go drink some maple syrup.  Sorry.

*JUST KIDDING! I would never kick a puppy. I might say some mean things about its mother.

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My first love

It’s that time of year again. The sun is getting warmer and if I close my eyes I can almost hear waves sloshing against the dock. But just as I think about how nice it would be to go down and jump in the lake, I open my eyes and my annual heartbreak hits.  Summer is starting and I will not be spending it at camp.

For a long time I lived a dual life: camp and non-camp.  I had camp friends and non-camp friends. Camp clothes and non-camp clothes. Camp Meagan and non-camp Meagan.  Camp Meagan was known as Tumbles.  In fact, there are probably a few hundred people in the world who know me only as Tumbles.  Camp people, regardless of what camp they attended, get it.  Non-camp people think we are weird.

I can’t blame them.  For a long time I was a non-camp person.  I went to camp as a kid and I did not love it.  I loved being outdoors, but I wasn’t really that interested in cooking grilled cheese over a juice tin, nor did I understand why I had to wrap multicoloured yarn around Popsicle sticks. Not all kids will love all parts of camp, but I believe that all kids should have the chance to try it out. If I hadn’t gone to camp, I would not have found canoe tripping as a teenager and without camp or canoes, I would not be the humble and amazing person that I am today.

Camp taught me the meaning of mind-over-matter and how to find the line between respecting boundaries and pushing limits. It taught me to see the beauty in the little things and in imperfection.   Because of camp I know that the quality of a leader has nothing to do with the volume of her voice.  I learned that the best adventures are rarely the ones planned.  Perhaps most importantly, I learned the secret to a consistently perfect high-five.  (I would share the trick, but this is the internet, and it’s a secret!)

Of course, camp isn’t all perfect high-fives and sunny days on the dock.  Those portages that teach you the meaning of mind-over-matter, they hurt. A lot.  Sometimes the wind blows so hard that your perfectly engineered tarp shreds.  Those unplanned adventures? Well, sometimes they involve sleeping on haunted islands, paddling in the snow, or protecting your campsite from a herd of … cows. The reality is that you have to lose a few marshmallows to the fire before you find that sweet spot above the coals.

However, mere weeks later, you won’t remember the pain in your shoulders during the portage.  You will remember the sensation of floating when you put down the canoe after a 2.8km trail.  You’ll remember the sunsets, the campfires, and the jokes that will only ever make sense to you and your cabin-mates.

Today, years later and on the other side of the world, I no longer remember all of the jokes but I do remember the belly laughter they caused, and that’s just as good.  Camp will always stick with me because whenever I am stressed I can close my eyes and imagine the sound of rain falling on my tent, or the feeling of the sun on my face as I lay back in a canoe.  Bliss.

If you happen to be reading this from Canada, please remember that June 6th is Camp Day at Tim Hortons.  All proceeds from coffee sales will go to the Tim Horton Children’s Foundation and will help send a deserving kid to camp. (If you are not a coffee drinker there are usually plenty of other ways to donate in-store.)

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