Changing habits in Japan, lessons in food and mindfulness

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I bow on the phone now. I’m not the only one.—And I never feel silly about it, because everyone around me here does the same thing. It’s this slight chin dip that comes with every “un” or “hai,” a simple confirmation of what the other has said. It’s one of the habits I’ve picked up in my five years here—habits that range from small to genuinely life changing. I think it’s worth noting that I spent four years on a small rural island, and now live in a small rural town in northeast Hokkaido.

My life here has always been in the countryside (田舎 inaka), so it may differ from somebody in Tokyo; but it’s Japan, and it has instilled in me some habits that have forever changed me.

The munchies

Back home in California, food selection is endless. Authentic insert-ethnicity-food from an auntie running a small shop around the corner is accessible with a couple taps in Google or Yelp. Craft beers, fusion food, and fast food are always a short drive away. When I moved to Tanegashima, it all changed. There are zero fast food places in Tanegashima. No gastro-pubs, no new places opening, no exotic foods.

Tanegashima locally sources nearly all of its food. This means everything is seasonal and meant my first change of habit in Japan. When certain fish or vegetables are in season, they’re cheaper and more delicious at the market. Markets close around 7 or 8 pm, so I did my shopping after work. No more late night runs, no more stopping by to grab a burger or order a pizza for delivery. It was either home, or the local izakaya. And I liked it. I grew closer to my food.

When I worked in schools as an assistant language teacher (ALT), I sat down and had lunch with the kids every day. Every day somebody would stand up and announce the ingredients of the day’s lunch, as well as where each ingredient was grown and sourced.

I think seeing all of this has changed the way I look at food. It was a lot easier before to pick something or grab it off the shelf without thinking about additives or time, but nowadays, I think more about what I eat. It’s a mix of everything: well-being, convenience, morals; but doing so has made me a lot happier about what I’m putting in my body, and it’s definitely reflected in my health.

Changing habits in Japan: The unexpected

I’m from the US, and as such, had some learning pains when getting used to driving on the left side of the road with a right-hand drive vehicle. Driving on the right side in a left-hand drive vehicle was a habit instilled in me since I got my hands behind the wheel next to a driving instructor back home. It’s fine now, but on occasion when my mind has wandered and I’ve been making a turn, I’ve caught myself pulling into the right lane and jerking back into the left. Woops!

I can successfully squat on a squat toilet without my knees feeling like they’re going to explode! That one took some training.

Back home I always washed and dried my laundry in machines, but here I’ve never had a dryer. Everything is washed in cold water (I’ve never had a hot water pump running into my machine) and then hung outside to dry. This was a huge problem on the island, as the June rainy season means everything has to stay inside in what is already usually 100% humid weather. The last time I came home to visit my parents, my mom asked me why I felt the need to hang everything up when the dryer was right next to the washer. It’s definitely made my clothes last longer!

My recycling is on point! Plastics, glass bottles depending on the color, newspapers tied up neatly separated from cardboard, aluminum cans, steel cans, you name it! It goes in different specified bags at home and recycled on set days.

Lifestyle

I think I’ve become a little shyer than how I was before I came here. In my opinion, American culture can be more open and more boisterous. It caught me off guard after coming back to the States when I stood in a grocery line and had the person in front of me turn around for small talk. I never get that too much here and almost forgot it wasn’t an odd thing. It’s not that Japanese people are cold, I think there’s a lot more thinking about others—sometimes thinking too much—and thus not wanting to bother others. On that note, it’s become a knee-jerk reaction to pour everyone’s drinks before mine.

Japan’s shopkeepers always greet guests, and so when I walk into a store back in the US and don’t hear anything, I’m almost a bit taken aback. This is no one’s fault. No one’s being mean. It’s just a difference in culture, and I’ve gotten used to it over here. So much that I’ve started having dreams in Japanese. Now that has been a trippy experience.
I’m permanently spoiled with such convenient access to vending machines. My mind can’t comprehend why there isn’t one around every corner when I’m thirsty back home and looking for instant gratification.

Changing habits in Japan is inevitable. Some are good, some entertaining, and some unsettling. If there’s one thing though that I’ll put my foot down for, it’s that I refuse to slurp my noodles!

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