Sunday, 20 September 2009

3 things that I love about Japan, #3

Following on from my last post, here is #3 of the 3 things I loved about Japan.

Things that I love #3 - Public baths

This is something in Japan that you tend to either love or hate, but I would definitely recommend trying it out at least once if you're over there. Just to explain the idea of public baths, it is basically a place where people from the local neighbourhood all go and bathe together, fully naked, and that's the part that puts a lot of people off. For someone from outside of Japan it can be a strange concept at first, and I also know Japanese people who feel uneasy about the idea too, but if you're willing to get over your fear of bathing naked with other people, it can be a really enjoyable experience.

Now, the wearing no clothes with lots of other males isn't the reason why I enjoy the public baths so much, although being naked in public like this does add a certain feeling of liberation and complete cleanliness to the experience. And I don't enjoy the public baths because you get to see members of the opposite sex naked, as just about all public baths are divided into male and female sections (if you're lucky, you might be able to find one of the combined baths though). I think the reason I enjoy the public baths is because it's such a relaxing experience, and you feel so clean and relaxed afterwards.

I'll try and paint a picture of what visiting a public baths is like and what you do there. The actual building is generally quite small, and you get the feeling most public baths are family businesses. The first thing you do when you enter the building is remove your shoes and place them in a locker. You take your locker key, and go through to the lobby area where there is generally a few sofas with people who've just come out of the baths relaxing there. There's also a fridge full of cold drinks for you to buy, a TV, and usually a massage chair. You pay your money to the person on the front desk, and walk through a curtain to your changing room. Here you put your all belongings and clothes, (apart from a flannel, shampoo and shower gel) in another locker, and proceed to the warm, steamy bathing area, which is separated from the changing rooms by a sliding glass door. When you enter you'll see people either washing themselves over at the shower area or relaxing and chatting in groups in one of the pools. First you grab one of the plastic bowls and put your locker key, flannel, shampoo and shower gel in here, then proceed to the shower area. Before entering the pools you must wash yourself, so you grab a small plastic chair and sit down in front of one of the showers which are at about head height when you're sat down. There's also a mirror right in front of you so you can watch yourself while you shower. After you're clean, you can head over to one of the pools on the other side of the room. Each public baths has a different combination of pools, which could include a jacuzzi pool, a pool with carbon gas, a really hot pool and even sometimes a pool with electricity in the water, which is meant to be good for your muscles or something. I've also seen radon pools as well, which I never went in, as bathing in a radioactive substance isn't something I wanted to do. There are people who do though.

You don't have to go in all the pools, but you can if you want. You generally spend 10-20 minutes relaxing here. Then there's usually a steam room, which is fun to try out. You might not wanna stay in there too long though, as they are so hot you start to feel faint and light-headed, and instinctively want to leave. There's also a pool of freezing cold water to clean off all the sweat from the steam room, and if you want to go back into one of the other pools to relax, you should wash yourself with the cold water first. When you're done you head back to the changing rooms and get dressed again, then head out to the lobby to relax.

I've never felt so clean as when I went to the public baths, and you're soaking in warmth and warm water for so long that you can't help feeling relaxed. You might feel a bit dehydrated after all that heat though, so it's a good idea to grab and drink. After a few minutes in the lobby you'll want to say "arigatou" to the person at the desk, then wrap up tightly before you head back outside to make sure you don't catch a cold.

If you go to Japan you can also visit an onsen, which is similar to a normal public baths, except that the hot water occurs naturally from a spring, and it's bit more up-market and expensive. I only had one experience with an onsen, and that was getting thrown out for my tattoo. The vast majority of people with tattoos in Japan are gangsters called yakuza, and so there's generally a ban on tattoos at onsens. I never had any trouble at the public baths though. In fact, I once saw a yakuza with tattoos covering most of his body at one of the public baths.

Look out for #2 coming next.

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Friday, 11 September 2009

3 things that I love and 3 things that I hate about Japan

So as you probably know, I went to Japan last year to study there, and I came back to the UK last month. Here are 3 things that I love about Japan and 3 that I hate. Let's start with the things I hate, so we can end this post on a positive note.

Things that I hate #3 - Work culture

Now this is something I didn't encounter directly, as I was a university student for my time in Japan, and in Japan university is undoubtedly the easiest stage of the school/university/work progression. However, I did come to understand a lot about the Japanese attitude to work and business, and it's something that really puts me off wanting to work there.

I'm making some generalisations here, but a lot of people work in office jobs in Japan, and the hours they work are extremely hard and extremely long. When I was returning home from karaoke on the train around 11 or 12 at night there would often still be businessmen and women returning home after just finishing at the office. You see, it's expected in Japan that everyone work overtime - it's just a normal part of the job, and basically everyone does it. And the emphasis for a worker in a Japanese business is not usually on results, but simply on time worked. So an employee could work extremely efficiently for 8 hours in a day and get all their work done and more, but it would be preferred that the employee works more hours, even if it means they get less work done.

From what I gather, Japan is moving away from their unique business practices, and towards a more Western way of working, but this kind of thing is still very prevalent in Japan, and results in things like death from overwork, which was a fairly big problem a few years ago.

It also creates a mindset where people become too focused on their work at the exclusion of all else, which means they barely have any time to see their family or spend as leisure time, which is very unhealthy. It can also contribute to creating a very homogenous society, which Japan definitely is, where there are few individuals, and just one massive workforce.

Of course this kind of system has its benefits. Japan are currently (although probably not for much longer) the 2nd largest economy in the world, and the Japanese population is very affluent, but it's something which I can't go along with myself, and would prevent me from wanting to work there.

Things that I hate #2 - Summer weather

The weather in Japan is really great for half of the year, namely spring and autumn. Both of these seasons are warm, with little rain, and could be compared to the British summer to be honest. And winter isn't all that bad. However, summer in Japan is horrible in every way. First the whole thing kicks off with a rainy season where you get torrential downpours and the possibility of typhoons. While I was in Japan the rainy season was apparently nowhere near as bad as usual, but it still wasn't enjoyable. Then it starts to get hot, really hot. Now being from the UK, you think I'd be happy of any kind of warm weather to come my way, but this isn't the kind of hot weather where you can get a suntan. This is the kind of heat that makes you sweat just sat in your room, meaning you have to have the air conditioner on full blast to make sure you don't end up in a melted puddle on the floor. The heat is so oppressive and muggy, that as soon as you walk outside you'll start to sweat, and about 30 minutes later be covered in sweat from head to toe. This climate was made ten times worse for me by the fact that my university was half-way up a massive mountain range, which meant I had to climb a huge hill every day to get to classes. One of my friends would take an extra change of clothes for when he reached uni because of the amount of sweat he would expend making the journey there. When you're in Japan you spend a lot of time on crowded trains too, which isn't fun in such weather.

You don't even get light nights in the summer in Japan, as it goes dark at the same time every night for the whole year. So it's safe to say I was relieved to come back to the UK and escape even just the tail-end of the Japanese summer. As soon as I got off the plane in England I noticed a difference, and the air felt so clean and cool. So while Japanese weather is quite nice most of the time, it's nearly unbearable in the summer.

Things that I hate #1 - Getting along with Japanese people

OK, that heading looks kinda bad, but let me explain. It's not that I hate Japanese people at all, but the biggest problem that I, and many of my foreign friends encountered in Japan, was getting along with Japanese people. Although I was warned about it before I went, and in a way even experienced it with some Japanese people I met before going to Japan, it took me a while to adjust to and understand the situation.

Now one of the big reasons I wanted to go to Japan was because it seemed so different to any other nation in the world. I once heard someone say something along the lines of "Japan is the most unique nation in the world, and is unlike any other", and after being there for a year I can agree with that. Even some of my Korean and Chinese friends who are from countries that are culturally close to Japan had a hard time getting along with Japanese people.

I don't like to make judgements on why a certain nationality of people behave in a certain way, but if I was to explain why I found it so hard to make good friends, I would say there are a couple of big reasons. First, Japanese people socialise in a different way compared to Western countries. It is common in Japan for your circle of friends to basically be the people in your class, or your office, and spontaneously making friends as we do in the West seems to happen much less. On top of that, many Japanese people have a mindset towards foreigners which means they view them as something very different and separate from Japan. Now every country in the world has this kind of view to some extent, but I believe Japan has it more-so than most other countries.

Also, I believe the concept of friendship in Japan is different to that in the West. For me, I can consider someone a friend if we get along well after just a few minutes, but in Japan it takes a long time to become good friends with someone. But even then, the method of becoming friends is different, and doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend much time with the person. It's a complicated process, and one I understand only a little of, which meant I didn't feel like I connected with a lot of Japanese people during my time there. Now don't get me wrong, I made some very good Japanese friends while I was there, but the number was very small compared to the amount I make back home in a year, for example.

This is a big over-simplification, but I think much of this problem comes from differences in personalities between me and the Japanese people, and it's a shame, because this is something else which puts me off living there long term. If I did, I know I'd need to have foreign friends there to hang out with.

OK, this got long, so we're gonna end on a downer :( I'll make the 'Things that I love about Japan' post next time.

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