Tuesday 12 February 2013

I think I'm turning Japanese*

I’ve just come back from Japan’s deep south – the Okinawa islands, to be precise – and, after less than a week there, I’m now “homesick” for all things Japanese.

Tropical Japan - that is, Okinawa
Many blue moons ago, I lived in Miyazaki, in southern Kyushu, for a year and a half, teaching English (what else?) and surfing, and felt so at ease there I often wondered if I was Japanese inside. 

I certainly wasn't Japanese on the outside - I'd be reminded of that whenever my Japanese friends took a photo of us together. Who was that blonde-haired-blue-eyed gaijin (foreigner) amid the dark hair and dark eyes? So that's why all the neighbourhood kids stared at me every time I rode my bike to the supermarket.

Even so, it happened again on this visit – I felt so at home there. Maybe I am Japanese on the inside. Here’s why. I love...

  • Taking off my shoes to go indoors, and padding about in socks or bare feet on tatami mats. And I love those shoji paper screens in old houses.
  • Kewpie mayonnaise (when I was little I longed for a Kewpie doll, don’t ask me why. Now I can look at one every day on the cute squeeze-me Kewpie mayo bottle).
  • In fact all Japanese food. Rice, soba, sashimi, okinomiyaki (Osaka pancake), teriyaki whatever, you name it.
  • Sitting on the floor, at low tables (after living in Japan, I actually made a desk for myself out of a wooden door, which I sanded and varnished and stacked on four milk crates, so I could kneel at my laptop; it was more comfortable than sitting in a chair – until my knees started hurting. I still use the same door/desk, with an ergonomic chair).
  • Being quiet and appreciating simple things like the changing colours of autumn leaves or a pair of chopsticks resting on a bowl. Japanese attention to detail is second to none.
  • People seem so considerate of each other, which makes daily life so easy. That attitude of humility extends into service too: last week, in Okinawa, I bought a chocolate bar in a convenience store; the lady behind the counter bowed deeply and said a solemn "arigato gozaimashita" (thank you very much). That's Japan.
  • Simple beauty
  • How safe it is there – when I lived in Miyazaki, the postman used to put our letters on the step inside our front door (!), and my flatmate and I didn’t even have a key to the house.

A small disclaimer – most of my experiences of Japan have been outside the megacities of Tokyo and Osaka, in Miyazaki, Hokkaido and now Okinawa. So maybe I'm a country Japanese person on the inside.

Of course there are things I don’t like about Japan. But let's not confuse the actions of a few (politicians, whale-hunters) with the daily lives of many. And nowhere is perfect. Even in Okinawa this time, I kept wondering how much energy could be saved if they didn’t have heated toilet seats or use disposable wooden chopsticks.

Not the Hawkesbury River, NSW -
a lake in northern Okinawa
But there's a strong love and respect for nature too - not surprising when you consider that Japan is one of the most volatile countries on earth, with its volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons.

In Okinawa I saw beautiful beaches and untouched forests, met a young couple running a "slow farm" and spent a morning in a conservation area that takes up pretty much the top quarter of Okinawa's main island. Stay tuned for a proper Okinawa post soon.

Mata ne! (See you later, in Japanese)

*Inspired by SheGoes blogger, Emma Gardiner, and her “I want to be Italian” post. Thanks, Em!