A while back, I wrote a column in Mysterious Orientations entitled “A few areas in which Japan has it all over North America”, and I promised to give the New World its props at a later date. Well, that later date has arrived, so here goes:
1) The size of a normal unit of housing relative to its counterpart in the Land of the Rising Sun: I don’t know anyone in the US who has an apartment as small as my current digs in Japan. Certainly I have never had one this small in North America; hell, I have never had a garage this small. How small is it, you ask? Well, it would fit in its entirety into the kitchen and dining room of my house in Canada, with enough room left over for a coat closet. That said, it is well decked out with storage nooks and high-tech configurable walls, but there is no substitute for square feet (or meters, if you prefer), in my estimation. And this place is a veritable castle compared to my first Tokyo apartment, which was just over 200 square feet plus a small sleeping loft accessible only by an aluminum ladder, big fun in the middle of the night when nature often calls out in earnest to its middle-aged denizens. (If you cannot imagine what it might be like to live in a 200-square-foot place, think of a small to medium motor home, and you would not be far off.) In Canada, I sleep in a king-sized bed, and even the guest room has a cushy queen-sized pillow-top awaiting visitors. Here in Japan, I have what is laughably called a “semi-double”, roughly the size of an American twin bed; this is considered normal for a couple. A single bed is considerably smaller, suitable only for Lilliputians and Munchkins, and only one of those at any given time. For guests, and there have been a remarkable number of them over the past few years, there are a couple of Japanese-style futons, essentially padded sleeping bags, which get laid out on the living room floor for the duration of the visit, then put away again into vacuum sealable bags until the next time.
2) The use of the automobile as a regular transportation device: I have not only one, but two cars awaiting me at home, steadily depreciating in the garage, to be sure, but staying in pretty much immaculate condition due to the low number of miles put on them in the run of a year. And more important, they are ready at a moment’s notice to take me to whatever out-of-the-way location I might choose to visit, places well off the beaten track of public transport. In Prince Edward Island I use the car for virtually every movement outside the confines of my house, sometimes (I am ashamed to say) even for the ¼ mile journey to the end of my driveway for the mail. There is a certain Wild West kind of freedom in being able to strike out in search of new frontiers, to cruise the “blue highways” like a 21st century Kerouac. There is no comparable feeling in Japan. There are cars, to be sure, but gas is pricey ($6 a gallon or so), the highways are all toll roads (the toll from Tokyo to Osaka, about 300 miles, is a whopping $120; for one person, it is actually cheaper to take the train!), and the ancillary expenses (parking, insurance, etc) are on the high side as well. The public transport system is so good that many people who can afford a car simply don’t bother, but the corollary to this is that they never get to visit the truly remote areas, perhaps the last remnants of old Japan. It’s kind of sad, in a way, or it would be, if one knew what one was missing.
3) Cookies: In the US, at a typical grocery store, you can find a dozen different types of tea, and perhaps 100 different varieties of cookies. In Japan, those numbers are reversed. Even the most basic Tokyo supermarket will have teas of every exotic stripe: jasmine tea, milk tea, lemon tea, sweet tea, orange tea, camomile tea, mint tea (several kinds: spearmint, peppermint, choco-mint), spiced tea, cinnamon tea, crispy rice tea, green tea, black tea, red tea, pepper tea (!), and on and on. For cookies, there are Oreos, Ritz Crackers, Chips Ahoy, and a number of strange Japanese varieties, filled with red bean paste, glutinous rice or something else equally tasty (and believe me, those are every bit as yummy as they sound!). That’s it. There is something fundamentally out-of-synch (to Westerners, at least) with a store where the varieties of fish sausage, pickled daikon, and konyaku handily outnumber the kinds of cookies on offer (on the other hand, it likely speaks volumes about the comparative health and low incidence of obesity of the Japanese). Nonetheless, when I come back to the US, I am going to stock up with a summer’s worth of Vienna Fingers, Nutter Butters, Lorna Doones, and Ginger Snaps (I have really been jonesing for ginger snaps). I imagine I will have to share them with my Japanese friends who will visit over the summer; perhaps they will return to Japan more, um, well-rounded then when they left.