I came back to Kuala Lumpur from Tokyo last Tuesday on December 15th 2015. It’s been exactly a week now so I thought it’s about time I started my blog so I can reflect and share the experiences I’ve had in Japan and also those I had while traveling within and outside of Japan for the last five and a half years. Welcome to my pilot post!
Things I miss about life in Japan:
- Easy Access to Places
For a person who doesn’t own a valid driving license, it is really, really difficult to get around town. Since I’ve been back I’ve been relying on my siblings, friends, and mum to drive me around in their personal cars. I know there is this new and popular service called uber (https://www.uber.com) which I have yet to try and also obviously there are other public transports like buses and LRTs/monorails which I can use here in Kuala Lumpur, but they are far from being as reliable as those in Japan.
Getting around in Japan:
①Google destination name → ②take down the name of the closest train or bus station and information on which trains to get on to get there → ③head to the nearest train or bus station near you (usually within 10-15 minutes from home) → start journey as planned in Step ②
Getting around in Kuala Lumpur for a person without a driving license:
①Google destination name → ②make appointment with family or friend to drive you there*
*If no family or friend is free, reschedule engagement
Picture taken from inside a train in Japan by one of two artistic sisters. March 2014.
- The Safety
The crime rate has been increasing for the past few years in Kuala Lumpur. I think it was especially scary about a year ago for some reason and everyone would at least have one friend or one friend of a friend who was a victim of robbery or housebreaking. Whereas in the land of peaceful Japan, in the past five years, every single time I misplaced my iPhone I got it back within 24 hours. However, one thing I did notice is that bizarre crimes of passion occur more in Japan, eg. one family member kills the other and buries him in cement or other disturbing cases like that.
Jogging outside as a girl in Japan:
At 12:00 am in a sports bra = OK.
Jogging outside as a girl in Kuala Lumpur:
Strongly discouraged. If you absolutely have to do it, it has to be either in the morning or evening, preferably with loose clothing and bad hair to minimize your attractiveness, whilst carrying a stick or with a big German Shepherd.
A lion painted on the road says ‘STOP’ at a junction in suburban Tokyo. I used to jog here a lot. Picture taken pobably sometime in 2011 / 2012.
- The Privacy and Time for Myself
Maybe I speak for myself on this one, but in Japan, I found I had lots of time just for myself and my thoughts either when commuting or in my room doing nothing. But back home in KL, as I still live with my family with so many siblings, most of my time is spent thinking about or doing household chores or interacting with someone else in the room that I hardly have had time for myself. Also, in KL, although on the increase, eating out at a restaurant alone is perceived as weird and perhaps even sad but in Japan it is so common to do that that they have tables and individual booths for people who choose to dine alone.
In addition, one thing I’ve noticed that is unique to Japanese culture is the respect of others’ privacy. There’s this very convenient word in Japanese you can use to answer someone when you get invited to something you have no interest in going, Just say ‘chotto…’ with a troubled face and you would be left alone (in most cases).
In Japan (ideally):
John: Hey Sheng, wanna go see the new Star Wars film?
John: Oh ok, maybe next time then! Bye!
John: Hey Sheng, wanna go see the new Star Wars film?
John: Huh, why you speaking Japanese?
HAHA, I kid.
In Malaysia, take #2:
John: Hey Sheng, wanna go see the new Star Wars film?
John: What? Got date ah?? (translation: Do you have a date?)
Sheng: No, but…
John: Then?? Let’s go lah!
Sheng: Ha, I don’t think I can. Think I’m busy tonight.
John: Ohh.. got other plans is it. What you doing tonight? (translation: Oh, you have other plans? What are you planning to do tonight?)
Sheng: Nola, I think I just want to rest at home.
John: Rest at home? So boring. Why you so tired until you need to rest at home? What did you do last night?
Sheng: Nothing, just went gym only. (translation: Nothing, I just went to the gym.)
John: Wah, so cool go gym. You dieting or trying to bulk up? (translation: Wow, it’s so cool that you go to the gym. Are you trying to lose weight or trying to bulk up?)
Sheng: Nola, just trying to stay healthy.
John: Ohhh, ey but seriously la, let’s go watch Star Wars. The more, the merrier!
Sheng: Don’t want la! To be honest, I just don’t like Star Wars, OK?
John: What! How can? (translation: how is that possible?)
Sheng: I never watch before la OK.
John: Haa??? Oh my God then all the more you must come!!
- The Onsens (Hot Springs)
I don’t know if any other experience can compare with soaking in hot water completely naked with friends and strangers. I love it. Especially after a long, tiring week of traveling or working. Summer or winter, it doesn’t matter!
Of course, at first I hesitated to go to the onsen too. I mean, for a Malaysian, it’s unthinkable to be nude in front of people and I really did not feel comfortable doing that during my first few years in Japan. I still remember my memorable first experience at an onsen, I was traveling out of Tokyo with my friends from the ultimate frisbee team in my second year in uni and the little lodging facility we stayed at didn’t have a shower / bathroom. It was only after our frisbee match (naturally, we were all sweaty and in need of a shower) that I found out we were going to a sentou which means a public bathhouse in Japanese and I had no other choice to get clean so there was no way out. It was uncomfortable and I chose a shower booth really far away from all of my friends and didn’t even soak in the hot bath. But after several visits, I was hooked! Now, it is one of my favorite things in Japan.
- The Walkability
Kuala Lumpur, as are many other cities in developing countries with hot and humid weather, is a very car-centric city, whereas in Japan, the urban environments are designed with pedestrians in mind. I can think of a few reasons why it’s not fun walking in Kuala Lumpur:
- it’s hot during the day
- unsafe in terms of paths that are unpaved or only paved partially with cheapskate concrete
- unsafe in terms of snatch theft and catcalls
- too much exhaust fumes from the cars
- ‘why should i walk? driving is much easier’ mentality.
- not many places to actually walk to, eg, my next destination is always a car’s ride away
On the other hand, in Tokyo and other big cities in Japan, one can walk anywhere! The pedestrians are king and I can easily walk more than 10,000 steps in a day. It’s healthier and much less stressful than being stuck in a traffic jam or road rage. However, there’s a caveat, rush hour at train stations in the mornings in Tokyo feels like soldiers in suits or black office clothes marching to war, and rush hour at train stations in the evenings is smelly and sometimes full of tired, grumpy and/or drunk people.
The famous Shibuya scramble crossing, where 3,000 people cross it at every green light making the total pedestrians crossing daily to be 500,000 people. Picture taken by Evana on my phone in October 2014.
- The Friends and Connections!!
Last but not least, I know this is an obvious one, but I miss all the friends I made in Japan so dearly. Friends from university, friends from the dorm, friends from my internships, friends from my job, both homestay families, and finally, friends from Peace Boat! These are the people who have directly or indirectly taught me so many things to widen my perspectives about myself and the world. It is also thanks to them that I had such a valuable and one-and-only experience in Japan.
Things I Surprisingly Don’t Miss about Life in Japan
- The Weather
When you think of Japan, one of the first things that come to mind is the cherry blossom, or the sakura tree! Fun fact: Sakura is one of the two national flowers of Japan. The other is the chrysanthemum, the motive on the front page of the Japanese passport. The cherry blossoms blooming in late March or early April in the spring marks the start of the year and paints the whole town in a pretty pink for a week. Then the weather turns warm into a humid summer, a cool and crispy autumn, then finally to a cold winter where it occasionally snows. I know a lot of people who like the four seasons for the ability to dress up for each weather and because each season brings with it the specific things to do and eat. But personally, after 5 years of living in Japan and traveling to the different countries to experience some different climates for myself, I think the good old Malaysian tropical climate is the most livable. I mean, although the afternoons may be hot, the mornings and nights are cool and we have alfresco mamaks (affordable eateries serving halal Indian food that often set up portable tables outside on the roads) all year long!! We don’t have to change our wardrobe throughout the year. And if you want to dress up, all the offices, malls and fancy restaurants in town are fully air conditioned so there’s actually nothing stopping you!
Another bonus point is that any time is suitable for going to the beach!! (except during the rainy season that happens sometime between the monsoon from November to March)
Sakura in the rain with my mummy! March 2014.
2. The Food
Sushi, ramen, sukiyaki, gyudon, etc.. Are you drooling yet? Actually, I’m not. Of course, I love good food but one thing that I learned on Peace Boat is that each country’s local food is the most delicious. As we sailed from one port to another on Peace Boat, even though each port had its own delicious delicacies, it’s impossible to compare and pinpoint the ‘best’ food. We also didn’t miss the food from the previous port to the point of yearning to eat it again because we were excited about the local food we can try at the next port. I also started to appreciate more the fruits that are so widely available in Southeast Asia. For example, mangoes, bananas, papayas, mangosteens, and of course durians and others are considered exotic tropical fruits sold at exorbitant prices in Japan.
So for me, right now, the most delicious food would be local Malaysian food, preferably made with ingredients grown on local soil! I might even feature my sister’s vegetable and fruit garden right in our front yard in a future post!
My last lunch in Japan before leaving: Yasubee Tsukemen. My favourite tsukemen out there. December 2015.
3. The Service
Japan is also well known for its impeccable service by the staff whether at convenience stores, restaurants, or every public place you can imagine, down to the facility cleaner or janitor. They bow, they recite every single thing you buy, they tell you how much your change is. They say ‘Welcome!’, ‘Thank you!’, and ‘Try it on!’ every few minutes. I remember my reverse culture shock experience back when I first came back to Malaysia over summer or spring break from university. I was at a counter ordering a donut or some kind of snack at KL International Airport and expected a polite and professional service (without tipping, of course) but what I got was just a curt ‘thank you’ when I was handed the donut. I felt stupid for feeling shocked because that was what I was used to for almost 20 years before I lived for just one year in Japan. What I’m trying to say is, after getting good service regularly for a long period of time, it’s easy to be spoiled and also, in a way forget that the staff providing the service is actually a human being with feelings. Now, in KL, I appreciate any kind of good service I get and try not to forget to say ‘Thank you!’ back to them.
Alright, that wraps up the list of things that I miss and surprisingly don’t miss about Japan. To anyone who has been in Japan before, either for a short trip or long trip, feel free to share your opinions or comments! There must be so much more things to miss about Japan that I didn’t cover. A little preview: my next post will be about – you guessed it, the opposite ie. Things I Don’t Miss and Surprisingly Miss about Japan. Hope to see you then!