The Differences between Japanese and Western Homes

If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/qWHaenUe1Vs

So, let's imagine you've just arrived in Japan, maybe to work as a teacher or for some other company, or maybe you've been lucky enough to be handed a Japanese apartment to live in for a totally different reason. No, I'm not suggesting you are accomplice to certain illegal murder/aaprtment squatting tactics.... because how the hell would you get in this country? Ok, so reasons aside, you have an aprtment in Japan. Your company has driven you to the door, shown you how the lock on the front door works (because you are foreign, maybe you don't have keys in your country) but then they have dumped you inside and left you to your own devices. This is it. Your life in Japan starts now. This is a very real situation and one I experienced myself. Though my boss was kind enough to set up my internet, but then his company tried to rape me of 20% of my wages. Evil!

You might be a bit confused. Yes, I used the word 'rape' in entirely the wrong context but just go with it. You might also be confused about some of the things in your apartment. It looks similar....but strange somehow. Let us help you.

  • Genkan: or 'entrance' as it is known in less crazy countries. Looks like concrete and is the only place you can wear outside shoes. So take them off here. Might have a cupboard for shoes.
  • Mini-boiler: floats mysteriously over your kitchen sink and provides undrinkable torrent of adjustably hot water through a bendy tap. Cold, drinkable water comes from a tap, but I'd recommend a tap fitting water filter anyway. Good for cleaning pots and washing hair.
  • NO oven! Japanese just don't roast and bake very much! They make toast and the occasional batch of cookies. On the bright side, no hulking monstrosity taking up lots of room in your tiny kitchen.
  • NO flat surface for cutting and preparing vegetables ever! Even if you buy one it will disappear! A folding table to fit into the space beside the washing machine is good though, if you cna avoid losing it.

    This is my house

  • Toilet: It might sing, it might dance (and open the lid for you), it might spray your bum, but highly unlikely unless you are working for a rich company. Probably it will be normal, but asian ones are just troughs that you squat over. Gives users strong legs and humility. Has psycologically sickening unusable tap on top and two options for flushing; 大 big and 小 small. Also, should have special shoes for this room only unless you like guests laughing at you.
  • Bath: thin and tall, no leg room, has a pathetic shower on the side that dribbles hot water and gushes ice cold water like you might actually want it (which you don't in winter); clean yourself sat under the shower on a plastic stool, then soak in the steaming bath
  • No bathroom sink: except that atrocious one on top of the toilet with no hot water. Get used to cleaning teeth and washing in the kitchen sink!
  • No heating: ever!

    Totally floating in my own living room. Mirror's Edge y'all
Living Room!
  • Tatami: Hard, cold, expensive and difficult to replace floor covering that only seems to exist to make measuring rooms easier (1 tatami, 2 tatami... 8 tatami room, etc.). Take care of it by padding any furnitures' bases or buying a rug! Nice for pets in summer, but give me a hard wood floor any day.
  • Sliding doors: everywhere! Fun and space saving. Don't pull too hard or your entire wall might come down. Can be rearranged easily.
  • Paper doors: looks very asian but not practical in any way at all ever. Make your apartment look messy until you replace them only to break them again the next day. Like Internet Explorer these shoudl be replaced as soon as you realise you have them.
  • Paper walls (practically): neighbours hear everything you do, you hear everything they do... everything! Plan accordingly, keep music and TV down, buy headphones. Useless for heavy pictures.
  • Cupboards: look exactly like doors to other rooms. Be careful, it might go to the neighbour's place.
  • Skirting board: massive gap behind it, great for holding up pictures, photos and greetings cards.
  • Ceilings and door frames: very very low. Tall people, beware!

This blog is not meant to be any kind of guide to getting an apartment asshat could easily make up four or five blogs on its own. No, this is merely to orientate you on moving in, and I have deliberately kept it brief because there is no point repeating what is in the video. If I wrote about these topics it would be too long for you too read. I know because I wrote it and then I deleted it.

I'm sure we'll cover buying and renting property on another day. All I shall say for now is to try and look after your apartment if you want to get any of your security deposit back. In some places they will always take a chunk of it for cleaning - even if you are meticulous - because its tradition, and to question tradition is to question our existence, and if we question our existence we might find out we have no reason to exist, and in knowing we have no reason to exist, we might cease to exist, and then there would be no more chocolate covered potato chips so the non-existent world would mourn. So just accept it and look after your place to get back as much money as you possibly can.

We'll see you next time with another episode, possibly outside. I don't know yet. Depends on if it stops snowing. In the meantime, all comments or questions are welcome, including any suggestions of what topics to cover? What do you think the newbie to Japan ought to know?


How to Stay Warm in Japan's Winter: Kotatsu!

If you can't see the video, please go here: http://youtu.be/DW1mtWCF3zQ

We got our first noticable snowfall of the winter today. It has been a lot lighter this year. That's not to say it hasn't been cold this year because ooooooh boy! Even my brass monkeys think that it's brass monkeys here! That's why we decided to finally buy a kotatsu.

Now, "what is a kotatsu?" you may well ask. If you're familiar with Japan at all you probably know already. Even if you aren't you have probably seen them in anime or dramas. In short, a kotatsu is a heated Japanese table, but it is so much more than that; it's dreams, it's heaven, it's a sound night's sleep and a way to avoid frostbite.

I'll warn you now, whether you have already arrived in Japan or you are planning on coming here and living in the future, Japanese houses are rubbish for insulation. Absolutely rubbish. If houses were light party snacks, Japanese houses would be swiss cheese.... in the arctic. For serious. Let's say you are in a Japanese house and it's cold, so you decide to put the air conditioner on. Then after a while it gets toasty, so you turn it off again. If you do that your house will be arctic cold again in under half an hour. I am not exaggerating. So the Japanese have many useful devices for keeping warm. The kotatsu is one of them.

You can get many different types, just like you can any table. You could buy a coffee table kotatsu, or a study desk kotatsu, or a dining table kotatsu, the key element that makes it different is...well, the element! The heating element. Under the table top there will be some form of heating device. Cheaper kotatsus will have large clunky heaters that glow red and you will always bang your knee on the guard casing, where as the most expensive ones will have a super-thin, flat heating pad that spans the table underside from end to end. The middle of the range will be a nice compact heater that should keep you warm without too much trouble. We got the latter.

Now, "won't all this lovely heat escape?" you may also ask. After my fearful introduction I can see why you might be concerned, but worry not because kotatsu come with (or require on separate purchase) a futon (thick blanket) that forms a curtain around the table edge and keeps the heat inside. All you need do is insert your cold little legs into the warm space and experience what chocolate feels like on the tongue of a hot girl in an expensive sweet commercial. You can also buy special padded seats for sitting at the shorter kotatsu, or any seat of your choice will do. If you are worried that while your legs are warm the rest of you is cold, don't, because that warmth spreads up your body and makes you feel like you are in a dry, hot bath.

There is one more difference in your choice of price range. Cheaper kotasu will have an on/off switch, but others have a control panel attached to the electric cable. This will allow you to moderate the degree of heat required and more expensive models are fit with a timer. That allows you to safely fall asleep and not dehydrate or have your legs spontaneously combust, because there in lies the problem with the kotatsu. It's so lovely and comfortable that people fall asleep and doze, so work doesn't get done and people don't want to move at all.

I've also encountered the problem that sitting at the kotatsu for a long period of time gives me a bad back, but maybe I just need better seating.

You can get kotatsu from many home stores and even online at Amazon if you wish (we are in no way endorsed by Amazon). Many deliver for free and require little assembly. Though please watch our video to find out how I manage to muck up putting ours together even though it has only 6 screws and 6 separate parts.

In our next blog we'll be taking a more general look at the differences you'll first notice in Japanese homes, so stick around. In the meantime, if you have any comments or there is any topic you want us to cover, please leave a comment below. Don't forget to subscribe for future episodes!


New Year Shopping Sales and Lucky Bags

If you cannot see the video, please go here: http://youtu.be/gh5ZuY3J484

Here we are, the new year! 13 may be unlucky for some, but only if you are religious, so why waste your time when you can pick up one of Japan's special Lucky bags! 

Yes, Japan is no stranger to shopping sales, and on 2nd January, they have a special deal, nation-wide, that should appeal to anyone with a nose for a bargain or a wallet full of cash. That is, if anyone has any money after all the spending done for Christmas.

Basically, what happens is this: for one day only just about every shop will have a selection of mystery bags for a fixed price. Many shops will have different ranges to suit the spender. You don't get to see what is inside the bag, but the general rule is that the value of the goods inside exceeds the price you pay. So, it's a good idea to head to your favorite shop early and grab a bag... or two! You'll probably get some things you don't want or like, but you're almost bound to get something interesting. It's a great way for shops to get rid of stock and it entices customers new and old. Who can resist the lure of the mystery box. There could be anything in there. It could be a boat. You know how we've always wanted one of those! 

Every store from the local cafe and fast food joint, to the electronics store offer one of these bags. The cafe may have special cups, boxes and snacks, but if you go to say, the Apple store, you could get an iPad and some accessories for about half price! 

Last year, we went late and we wandered around a few shops, but we picked a bag from our favorite variety shop, Village Vanguard, which sells a range of anime, movie, and alternative gadgets and cool house knick knacks. We got quite a good deal. We had a 50s noir cushion, a lamp that can clamp onto and surface and a host of other things for 3000円(24 GBP, 30 USD). This year we had a quick look around and picked up a bag from Natalie's favourite household store and Village Vanguard again. However, we also discovered a H&M had opened in Sendai and so we had a look around. It didn't have a lucky bag, but it did have incredible discounts. We bought a few things there too. It was as busy as previous years and I really don't like crowds! The bargains are worth it though.

When we got home we checked the bags and got a good hoard of gear. Some fun toys and useful items you can see in our video. As far as we know, this is unique to Japan. It's great idea though and I hope other countries adopt it. Some of the discounts are unbelievable. Just watch the video to see how impressed our cat is, even!

And then we'll see you next time. That's it for special holidays. We're going to move on to more everyday topics for our next blog entry and video. If you have any suggestions for topics or something you would like us to talk about please leave a comment below and if we can, we'll do it! But not live on camera because that's gross. And our parents would be upset.


New Year's Day in Japan

If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/v8XPQo4xESA

How are you doing there? I'm glad to see you survived Christmas. If it isn't the trials of present shopping or the overstuffed belly of turkey, turkey and more turkey, there's always some dangers around the holidays, but those who survive get to celebrate the coming of New Year's day. It's a hallowed time when cheers are cheered, beer is beered and boopily mcscooby doo. Yeah, that kinda got away from me there.

2013 then, the year that "no one" thought would happen!

New Year can be split into two parts. The night before and the morning hangover, I mean, morning after. It's a lot like that here but with a little more emphasis on the new year itself rather than the countdown.

The night before, people will go out drinking, if they are old enough. Everyone else likely stays at home and watches the TV. Every year they have a grand music show with all the country's top music acts and some foreign ones too (sometimes) and they play all their best songs. Kōhaku Uta Gassen it's called. Then at midnight, live from famous local and national temples and shrines, there is the ringing of the bells. The bells chime 108 times for the New Year to cancel out the 108 evils of the human soul, and then one more time to usher in the New Year on it's first second. Many people stay up to watch this and it's the equivalent of the ball dropping or the countdown in London. Though it is more traditional, as can be expected of such a country. The practice seems to be on the way out though. Many local residents near the temples have complained that they are trying to sleep at this time and so many places aren't allowed to ring the bells anymore! No respect!

While back out at the bars, people stagger into the streets and cheer in the New Year like any other country. Here in Sendai, they have the christmas illuminations we showed you in the previous video. As the clock counts down, they flash. Then turn off for a full second and then back on again precisely at midnight. This is accompanied by hundreds of car horns and people cheering "Akemashite Omedetou gozaimasu!" which basically means "Happy New Year!" So it's not that different.

The main difference is in the morning. On New Year's day everyone traditionally goes home, and they get together with family. The older members of the family give money to their grandchildren in a special envelope, but it's also traditional for the parents to take it and say "I'll look after that for you". And the parents look after it so well that the children never ever see it again.

Sometime during New Year's everyone eats soba (buckwheat) noodles as they are supposed to symbolise longevity. So it's a wish for good health. It tastes ok, but it's a bit boring for a meal and I'm hungry again right after.

The main activity, though, is that everyone goes to a temple to make a wish for a happy new year. This sounds simple, but when you consider that everyone is doing this you soon discover you have to wait in a very long queue to throw money in a bucket, ring the big bell and clap three times before you make your wish. People queue for hours. So long that there are festival and snacks stalls that open up along the line and they sell their goods and food to people waiting. So, people like to get up early to try and get to the front of the queue. They also pick up a fortune on the way out. You pay a small fee to the temple and they give you a fortune on a piece of paper. It's like the fortune in a Chinese fortune cookie but it is more detailed, covering different aspects of your life. I've had at least three of these but I don't think they have ever come true. Some places will do an English one for you, but these are usually only the popular tourist destinations. Whether the fortune is good or bad, they usually take them to a fence or a tree and they tie them into a knot. This is supposed to bind the future it predicts, and stop it affecting your life, but people seem to do it with not only bad ones, but good ones too. I like to keep mine. There are also different types of fortunes. You can shake a box with sticks in and then pull one out. A mark on the stick corresponds to a fortune the clerk has and they give it to you.

Finally, there is one more thing they might do. At the temple, they can leave a message on a special wooden board and hang it up at the temple so that it may come true. Some people go all out with this, and it is not out of the ordinary to see some awesome manga drawings on these boards. They can also buy lucky charms to help it come true and these are specially made for different needs. They have everything from 'good health' to 'good exam results'.

So that's it for the day itself, but soon come the New Year's sales, which are a little special in Japan. That's for the next blog entry. In the meantime, check out our video and if you have any questions or comments, or there is anything you want us to cover in a future blog, please let us know.