You Can Take the Man Out of Britain…
Japan and the UK share many things. They’re both islands hovering around the outskirts of their respective continents. They both have colonial pasts. (One recognised very well and often brought up in online arguments, the other not so well recognised and oddly quiet with very few people criticising them for it). They both share a love of tea, albeit in vastly different ways. They both have long and rich histories. Their political systems are both constitutional monarchies. We’re also both very good at queuing! I could go on, but I think you get the gist and I don’t know how many times I should write ‘they both…’.
Yet despite their similarities, there are of course many differences. Japan is amazing at doing so much, but admittedly they do fall short in many areas that make some foreigners in Japan question how the country could become such a technological powerhouse on the world stage. Ward offices, I am looking at you. (Although they are improving in some areas.) Please do not take this article as an opportunity for me to bash Japan, because it very much is not that. I do not intend to start listing out which country does what best. I think I’ve been away from the UK for far too long to really provide an accurate commentary on that topic, but such comparisons I am sure will pop up as I write.
The Earl of Sandwich would be spinning in his grave if he saw what Japan has to offer in the sandwich department. I understand that is common for a country to take food and adapt it to the tastes of its people, but Japan, I’m afraid that I cannot accept what you have done to the sandwich. An inexperienced foreigner may be duped on his first visit to a convenience store when he presented with an array of sandwiches that visually may look quite appealing. A simple tuna and mayonnaise sandwich I imagine is something that quite a few Brits would enjoy. Simple is best, right? You can see a lovely boiled egg just bursting through the seams of the sandwich, which may lead one to wonder how it keeps it all in! However, as you take that first bite, you’ll soon realise that it was all a ruse; the fillings are gone in a bite or two and as you peal away the bread, the abject horror that the fillings occupy only a small portion of the sandwich will have you marching back for a refund. (After you’ve finish the sandwich, of course.)
Crisps hold a very special place in many Brits’ hearts, more so than other nationalities, I feel. Americans do love their ‘chips’, but I’ve never heard an American talk the same way about their chips as we do our crisps. The sheer variety of crisps in the UK is what I miss the most. You can find good crisps in Japan and a particular favourite of mine is their pizza-flavoured ones with real (processed) cheese on them. A pack of them will generally sate my cravings, but as I sit on the sofa watching the telly with a bag of them or their rather delicious wasabi beef (wasabeef) crisps, something my mother said when I gave her some seaweed crisps as a gift on my last trip home always pops into my head: ‘It’s not quite salt and vinegar, is it?’ As much as I miss what I could get at home, I am very appreciative that I can experience flavours here that I certainly would not get back home.
- Charity Shops
Japan has a lot of second hand shops. Whether for clothes, electronics or furniture, you don’t have to go very far to find one of the various chains out there. I’m rather fond of Book Off myself, where you can pick up very cheap manga and novels. It used to be that you’d find dirt cheap English books there, too, but for some reason since, they’ve jacked up the prices of English books and they are no longer the bargain they once were. When it comes to second-hand goods, I do find it’s very difficult to beat a good ol’ charity shop. They seem to have so much more character than any of the shops here and there’s nothing ostentatious about them either. Each is very unique and has its own character, whether it’s the layout that is likely in complete disarray, or the clerk who looks like she’d rather be sat at home with a sherry. With charity shops, you of course also have that warm feeling knowing that you are contributing to a charity as well, which I feel is a big part of British culture and one that I haven’t really picked up on here. (Anyone who knows otherwise, please let me know!) If anything, I’d say charity shops in the UK probably undercharge, but perhaps I’m thinking too much. Oh, I cannot forget that musty smell as well. To each their own.
- Work/Life Balance
This is not something I struggle with as much as I used to. As an assistant language teacher with very desirable work hours, I was out the door most days before 5 PM, but I was very conscious that the real teachers would be there until much later. When I first started at my current job, I very easily fell into the Japanese work style in which everyone just keeps working without a clear goal or cut-off point to mark the end of the working day. I would often continue working until 8 PM or later, somehow without even questioning it. (On occasion it could go much later, but somehow I still didn’t care. Single life, perhaps?) I don’t know how that happened! Maybe I just enjoyed the job back then enough for me to just keep going, but nowadays I’m very much packing up five minutes before the end and encouraging others to do so, with little effect. That 6 PM finish time just doesn’t mean anything to most who just carry on as they are. They even say that leaving at 6 is ‘early’, to which I reply ‘No, it’s on time‘. The worst part is that some companies make you feel guilty for leaving ‘early’ (on time) or taking time off, which is just ridiculous. Technology should allow us humans to work less not more. Let’s hope a four-day week becomes the standard in the future. Don’t even get me started on what companies want you to do after work!
Ah, yes. The traditional British pub. How could I not include this one? They are infamous the world over and I think over the years I have adopted a rather idolised idea of the pub. Having left Japan at the age of 24 and for most of my time before then having lived in the countryside away from anything, most of my experience from pubs was while I was at university. Compared to most Brits my age, I’m a very inexperienced pub-goer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t miss them, right? When I go back to the UK I always make a point of going to as many pubs while I can; I just love them! Japan tries, and there are a few dedicated Japanese and British pub owners who do try to recreate that very special feeling of walking into a pub back home, with very mixed success. What makes a pub is not just its interior and décor, but the people as well and the atmosphere here is just too different. A pub that’s not full of British people just isn’t a pub. I have to give a very dishonourable mention to Hub, a chain of ‘British pubs’ around the country that literally has one British beer on its menu and the food is simply atrocious. It’s essentially a gastropub but far worse. I need some good pub grub! Using the phrase ‘Fancy a pint?’ feels oddly contrived nowadays and that makes me very sad indeed. Japan may not have any ‘proper’ pubs, but that’s fine. It doesn’t need to. (I just wish it did.)
- The Countryside
Those feet really did walk upon England’s mountains green and yes, in fact the Holy Lamb of God was on pleasant pastures seen. The countryside of the UK is symbolic to many and I am not alone in expressing my appreciation for it. There is something quite different about the UK countryside that is entrenched in a traditional farming culture; a pleasantness perhaps that I just can’t quite get here.
It may not have the breath-taking mountains that many other countries do in as plentiful supply, but there’s something quite lovely about opening the door and wandering off into the rolling hills (or even flat farmland mainly where I’m from), stumbling upon a small village in the middle of nowhere, taking in the sights and sounds of the flora and fauna, bumping into a like-minded rambler with his dog, and breathing in the fresh air before diving into a small local pub to enjoy a local ale. It’s not something that everyone can experience and I am sure there are many people who likely could not care less. Evidently so when I read that the UK’s countryside is dwindling fast in place of urban development. (Please stop.)
The countryside is something that I feel is special to many people and something that should be protected for everyone to enjoy. Being able to enjoy it myself is something that I truly do miss. Japan has some fantastic wildlife and countryside as well, but the human presence is always felt, either with fake mountain sides to hide the gouges, or artificial rivers and canals that are encased in concrete.
- Churches. Real Ones.
I’m not particularly religious, nor do I feel I need to be to appreciate the history and culture of Christianity that has been so obviously instrumental in creating what the UK is today. Japanese temples and shrines really are quite something and they certainly imbue a similar feeling to what I would get going to a church in the UK, but there is a difference. The cultural relevance of churches to me is obviously much more profound than a temple and I often get a very commercial impression of temples and shrines, which I don’t think I have ever experienced at a church. (A cathedral maybe.) The sheer number of people who visit temples in Japan would make any Christian priest green with envy, but I feel lacks any real meaning. Sometimes the temples or shrines have been completely rebuilt and therefore – to me – lose that feeling of history I get when entering a genuinely old church that hasn’t changed much over the years.
I say ‘real’ as you will find buildings that certainly look like churches but they are not. They are what I refer to simply as ‘fake churches’ that are used for over-priced ‘western’ wedding ceremonies. (Something to look forward to.) I’d have loved to have my wedding in a proper church but the likelihood of that happening dwindles with every year passed.
- Telly – The Good and the Bad
I think many foreigners living in Japan would probably agree that Japanese TV is terrible. I understand that is an extremely sweeping statement and I will say that there are some good Japanese shows out there, but TV for many people who cannot understand the language, is just an impenetrable and unnavigable maze of loud noises, flashy lights, bright colours, text and people’s heads popping up all over the screen like your TV has been infected by some terrible virus after visiting too many of those websites, and lots of food with people shouting ‘UMAI!’ (delicious) in however many different ways is possible. Even to those who do understand the language, it is a far cry from what someone from the UK would expect in TV.
My understanding of Japanese TV is that is thought more of as background noise than anything else, and I think it really shows. I can’t think of many Japanese people who would seriously want to just sit down for an hour or two and watch a really good show uninterrupted. It just doesn’t seem to be in their culture, which I think results in the quality of their dramas overall. Daytime telly in the UK is synonymous with trash TV but compared to Japan, it doesn’t feel like it. There is some awful TV out there in the UK as well, and yet somehow I feel like it’s something I miss. I am lucky enough to live in an age with the Internet and VPNs that allow me to catch up on the shows that I like, but it’s not quite the same as getting home from work and just bunging the telly on and retiring for the evening. It’s not so much the shows themselves that I miss, but more the nostalgia I feel whenever I see it. An American friend of mine described British TV as ‘Japanese TV, but better’. This description may be confusing for those who haven’t watched both, but I couldn’t agree more.
9. Tea – A Surprise to No-One!
Japan has tea and lots of it! You can get simple black tea, mugicha, matcha, hojicha, yuzucha, oolong, countless fruit teas and even a selection of British teas from Twinings to Tetleys! I imagine in the UK it is easier to get a lot of Japanese tea now and the selections may be as equally impressive depending on where you shop, but there is one key difference that separates the two countries: the water. It took me a while to figure out why my PG Tips didn’t quite taste the same over here other than it possibly being a tired from the journey. I thought maybe it was just in my head, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is more likely the water. Japanese tap water is very soft, whereas UK water tends to be hard. It must be the lovely limescale that accompanies water from the kettle back home that gives tea in the UK the edge. Delicious. I might have to bring back gallons of water with me just to get that authentic flavour here in Japan.
And that’s your lot for now. I can think of a few other things off the top of my head that I miss and I’ll be sure to write those down too sometime in the near future. If any fellow Brits out there care to share what they miss from home, comments are more than welcome below. Even if you’re not from there, feel free to share anything you miss from your home country and I’d be really interested to learn a little more about the world.
Until next time, be good to yourself.