Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Japanese Tradition

When I say the word "Japan" to you, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Fast trains? Mt. Fuji? Or what about sushi?

Sushi, now I would hazard a guess that that is certainly going to be a common reply. Outside of Japan, sushi is regarded as something special. Yes, I know that of late with the popularity of places such as "Yo! Sushi", it is far more available to the masses and is therefore losing that magical spark, but it still retains the notion of being something different. (I would like to take this opportunity to point out that the vegetables rolled in rice and seaweed that they sell in your local Tesco, are not "sushi", but rather some western invention made to give the impression of eating something "foreign")

My dad recently directed my attention towards an article in the guardian magazine some time ago. It talks about sushi, and the idea of "tourist anxiety about eating in Japan", as the article puts it. It suddenly occurred to me that I too have suffered from this while being here. I found out last year that leaving rice grains in your bowl/dish is considered rude - during the shogunate it was something only the rich could afford, and the concept of it being a privilege to eat has continued to this day (highlighted by the use of the honorific "go" in front of the actual word for rice - "gohan").

The article also directs readers to this video (at least, the online version does):

I remember watching this before going to Japan, and not knowing how much was actually "for real". While they make jokes about the etiquette of the people here, there is some truth in what they say. This obviously adds to this whole sense of anxiety, not only when eating, but generally while living in Japan. All Japanese people seem to be aware of a certain code of how to act in public - something which as a foreigner, I have no idea about (other than what I have learnt from my parents). The irony is, that as soon as Japanese people get drunk, this "code of behavior" is permitted to be thrown out the window, and all manners of behaviour are permitted (to an extent obviously).

Therefore, it appears that a good remedy for this anxiety would be to be drunk all the time - thereby excusing your actions. Of course, this is not a feasible idea, especially when factoring in the ludicrous price of beer in Japan. Luckily, there is another option which requires very little effort - being foreign. As a foreigner in Japan, you are somewhat immune to social expectations on how to behave. Obviously extremes of behaviour will not generally be tolerated, nor will any illegal activity, but on the whole you can get a way with a hell of a lot simply by shrugging your shoulders and saying "hey, I'm foreign".

There is a third way - actually learning what to do in each situation. This however, is extremely difficult, as half the time Japanese people don't even know what to do, they simply do it by instinct.

So how am I getting by? Mostly by using the second option with occasional attempts at the other two, and eating a lot of sushi as I do it. Before coming to Japan I was never that enthralled by sushi, and I would still take yakiniku or a few other types of Japanese cuisine over it, but I have certainly acquired a taste for it. A nice bit of Toro (tuna sushi) is simply delicious (yes I know I am contributing to the problem, but it's just so damn good).

Anyway, so what have I been up to (besides eating sushi and shrugging my shoulders)? I hear you ask. Well, New Years Eve was certainly eventful. We decided to head to Meiji jingu for midnight - supposedly a "Japanese Tradition". But it turned out to be filled with foreigners and not really amount to much other then chucking some coins over a large crowd of people. After that we didn't really know what to do, so we walked around for a while, sat in McDonalds, and ended up in a darts bar at 4am drinking champagne (thanks Dries!). So yeah, not the best - but New Year's eve is always a big let down.

Around the 8th of January, I went with a few friends from the dorm to a mountainous region west of Tokyo called Hakone. We only went for one night, but were able to take in the countryside, visit the hot springs, and eat eggs cooked in the natural sulphurous springs of the mountains. It was a pretty nice place, and it even snowed on the second day, providing me with my first snow of the season (big ones for sure)! After getting back, we all had two weeks of exams/papers, but they proved to be pretty easy, and having completed them we are now on holiday until early April (hells)!

Regarding my moving out of dorms, I am unsure at what point I was at the last time I mentioned it, but thanks to a friend we have been able to obtain an apartment in a posh area of Tokyo called hiroo. What's best about the place is the rent - half of what I am paying now, equating to about £200/month. I'm moving with a Belgian friend I have made here in the dorm, and we are able to move in any time from now, so I have been taking occasional trips over there with a few of my belongings. The place isn't big, and it's pretty old by Japanese standards (from the 60's), but for that price in that neighbourhood, it is an amazing deal. It will allow a lot more freedom in how we live, and will ensure no worries about missing curfew, or the last train home - so we are bloody happy.

I think I'm going to call it a day for now as I've been writing this for well over an hour, and I want to cook my dinner. But I will hopefully get another post up telling you all about the rad South American food I've been eating, the all-night karaoke sessions I've been put through, and the dodgy robberies that have gone on (not to me thank God, but still... pretty dodgy).

So I leave you with a handy "how to" video showing you a speedy way to fold your T-shirts (a lot of you will have already seen it, but pfff, can't hurt to watch it again eh?):

take care guys.