It goes without saying that the best things about Japan will always be the people that you meet and relationships that you forge; The friendly lady who sells bread at one of your schools, the volunteers running Japanese language classes, the other ALTs in town and random people you ‘inherit’ from predecessors. And that’s before you even start to think about anything truly work related.
So I’m not going to talk about that, but about some of the other little things that can make your time in the Land of the Rising Sun that little bit more magical. They aren’t strictly Japan related, but have made my five years in Japan, a smilier place.
1) An Oven
Innocuous as it may sound, one of my happiest purchases in Japan was my oven. Before heading to these fair shores, it hadn’t crossed my mind that an oven wouldn’t be present and correct in the kitchen upon my arrival. Stepping into my kitchen for the first time and noting this lack, my initial thought was ‘how am I going to cook for myself?!?’ Of course it’s not actually that hard, and I soon realized that most of the food I cooked was on the gas hobs that were in the kitchen, but I still wanted the option to bake/roast things.
So I took a deep breath, handed over a wodge of cash and bought my Japanese oven.
Doubling as a microwave (useful) and grill (useless) too, just having it in the house made me happier. When the mood took me I had the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through my house; baked veggies in giant quantities became a regular feature of meals and I was able to produce cakes, meringues, biscuits (the list goes on) to share with teachers and friends.
I love my oven and if it wouldn’t explode upon being plugged in to a British electrical circuit I would never, ever part from it.
If I see this little citrus fruit’s name attached to pretty much anything I will seriously consider buying it. The smell of it is heavenly and the taste rapture-inducing. From moisturizer to yuzu-wasabi, I have never failed to love anything it touches. I will always choose yuzu-ponzu over any other; the yuzu-hachimitsu (yuzu-honey) chu-hai at Torikizoku the yuzu sorbet at the supermarket. I’ve used yuzu juice to make fruit pies that bit more amazing, and the aforementioned yuzu-wasabi takes tuna mayonnaise to a whole new level. Try it, and fall in love.
3) Mister Donut (Point Card)
When I first arrived in Japan I got a lot of point cards as that just seemed like a ‘thing’. A word of warning – most are absolutely rubbish and you have to spend an extortionate amount of money to get anything from them.
Now I’m a bit of a fan of Mister Donut to say the least. The doughnuts aren’t overly sweet, the custard in the custard one is delicious and honey dipped old fashioned are one of my guilty pleasures in life. The chain also has free refills on coffee making it a brilliant location for Japanese study in my humble opinion – you get a coffee, a donut or three and you’re set for an afternoon. They also have 100円 doughnut sales with alarming regularity (it was certainly the case for a while, and possibly still is, that they had a sale every fortnight. EVERY FORTNIGHT).
Now let’s return to the point card point. At ミスド, you get 3 points for every 100円 you spend. It can therefore be terribly efficient to get doughnuts when they’re on sale. Over and above that, you can actually get some nice things with the points. For 50 you can get a free doughnut (a bit meh, though not nothing) and for 150 you get into cup territory. They’re well designed, ceramic cups with silicone sleeves so you don’t burn yourself holding them. Volunteer your card when going with friends and not only is that really very achievable, but you both get tasty things to eat. A win all round really (apart from maybe for the waistline).
Update – Apparently the Mister Donut people really do hate me. Having closed my closest 店, they are now discontinuing the point card. Anyone with a card, you have until September 30th to collect/use points. I stand by ‘yey delicious doughnuts and free coffee refills’ as a reason for misdo being wonderful, but the card going is undoubtedly a bit of a bummer.
4) Soft Cream Flavours
I’m not sure this would have been a thing if it wasn’t for my town, Sasayama, having the best ソフトクリーム on the planet – kuromame (black bean). If you visit (and you should), you must try it, and if possible, go to 特産館ささやま (Tokusankan Sasayama) which is the best in town. Sasayama also has chestnut ソフト which is good, but not as good.
Now that little plug is over, what about the other flavours you can find? There are some that tend to be in most tourist locations; there will always be green tea, often black sesame (my preference in these situations), and the more standard strawberry, chocolate, vanilla. A little further afield perhaps, but in Asakusa, Tokyo, there’s a stand that has flavours including sweet potato, sakura and wasabi. It seems that the more tourists there are, the greater the range becomes.
Yet, like Sasayama, you also get more region-centric flavours. This means I’ve sampled wine, miso and even soba ice cream. Whenever you’re out and about and see a ソフトクリーム sign, go and have a peek at what’s on offer. It might be awful (miso – bleargh) or wonderful.
5) Gatsby Ice Wipes
Japan is HOT in the summer. It is sticky, and as one friend recently put it, before too long you just start repeating ‘I am a swamp creature. Fear my swamp ass’ over and over again. It’s all fine and dandy when you’re in the a/c, but as soon as you want to move anywhere, give a lesson or, god forbid, cycle somewhere with a rucksack on, things go rapidly downhill.
Enter the Gatsby wipes.
Now something similar may be available back home, but until encountering a Japanese summer I didn’t have a need for them so I don’t know. They’re wet towels, handily on sale in most convenience and drug stores, which have the added charm of menthol. Menthol has cooling properties and boy do Gatsby wipes make good use of that fact. The initial wipe isn’t that cooling (but gets rid of those pesky beads of sweat peppering your brow) but then it hits and it’s wonderful. Stand near a fan and you will be cold.
I took them to Singapore with me on a trip with my brother, and he now requests them in care packages (which I swear I’m meant to get living abroad rather than the other way around…).
Keep them away from sensitive areas though. Male friends inform me that drunken dares to wipe the nether regions result in a serious degree of discomfort for not an insignificant amount of time. You have been warned.