Living in another country is as foreign as, well, living in another country. Studying the language can prepare you for culture shock by introducing the more intriguing differences between your country and another, but only by living in that country can you truly understand how different another culture can be. Today I’d like to introduce 3 things that I wish I had better understood before living in Japan!
1. Burnable vs. Non-burnable Garbage
In the US, we have regular trash and recycling. Some people have compost piles too, which consist primarily of biodegradable food waste products that can be used to fertilize gardens, but in general, you throw trash away in one big bin and recycling in another bin.
In Japan, garbage must be separated into burnable garbage, non-burnable garbage, and recycling. There are even separate, clear bags that you must use for each kind of trash. At my apartment in Japan, garbage had to be put out only on the designated trash day, and if something had been put in the wrong bag it would not be collected. The bags were not put in bins, but under a giant net at the designated collection area.
In the winter, there was a bag that wasn’t collected for a whole month, which means that something was in the wrong bag. I’m not sure who eventually got rid of it, but I had checked early on and confirmed that it wasn’t mine. It seems to me that more rural areas (like Yamanashi Prefecture) are stricter on garbage collection and sorting that in more urban areas (like Tokyo), but that’s just my own personal observations.
You can look up what counts as burnable and non-burnable garbage, and most recyclable materials have recycle symbols so there isn’t much mystery there. I don’t intend to give a list of things that are burnable or non-burnable, but if you use your imagination and picture what kind of items you could or could not (safely) burn in a bonfire, you get the general idea of the difference between burnable and non-burnable garbage.
I think that the biggest problem I faced was trying to distinguish burnable and non-burnable garbage on the fly at restaurants. Most restaurants have pictures on the trash cans, or the Japanese characters: 燃えるゴミ (moeru gomi, burnable garbage) or 燃えないゴミ (moenai gomi, non-burnable garbage) and the traditional symbol for recycling. However, some smaller restaurants I’ve encountered have one or two bins, or one bin and a tub.
I remember one restaurant in particular that had the tub for dishes that would be washed and then had a bin, with the characters for “chopsticks” written on the bin. There were other characters that I couldn’t read, and I was confused about whether or not I could put used wooden chopsticks in this bin. I opened the step-can lid on the bin and peered in, and I swear I thought I saw another pair of chopsticks in the bin, so I tossed them in. As soon as I let the lid shut, I looked up and the lady working in the back of the restaurant was glaring at me and muttered something about not throwing chopsticks away (at least, I’m pretty sure that’s what she was saying).
I was pretty embarrassed, and so I went to fish the chopsticks out of the bin, but she waved at me and shook her head and told me nevermind. I apologised and scurried out of the restaurant as fast as I could go. I know it’s not the worst mistake I could have made, but at the time it felt like a giant foreigner failure! My strategy now? I observe what other customers are doing, and if that fails, I just ask. It’s easier now with improved Japanese ability, but I imagine that if I was really desperate I could just point at the trash and they would point to the correct bin.
2. Hands-free Shoes
As you probably know, Japanese people take off their shoes when they enter their home, and do not wear them past the genkan 玄関 or entry, which is at a slightly lower level than the rest of the home in Japanese homes. Japanese people have an amazing skill where they can slip on and remove their shoes hands-free (except maybe tall boots). I can only attribute this to a lifetime of hands-free shoe practice, because many foreigners I know do not have the grace and speed of most Japanese people.
I think one of the secrets to quickly slipping on shoes with laces is to leave them slightly wider than your foot will fit through the opening, so you don’t have to tie or untie them everytime. Slip-on shoes are also great if you want to enter and leave someone’s home quickly without appearing clumsy as you lean against the wall or the door or a close friend whilst trying to get your shoes on. Breaking shoes in or buying them just slightly too big might help if you are desperate.
If you are packing shoes for Japan, try to find kinds (laces or not) that you can slip on and off quickly and easily, as you can feel very awkward when everyone is waiting on you to finish tying up your laces as you leave a restaurant. If you can fit Japanese shoes (the largest women’s shoe is size 7.5 or 24.5 cm) you might buy a couple of pairs that are easy to slip into, and ask for recommendations from friends.
I’d really like to be faster at putting on shoes in particular. I’d like to be more graceful at both putting on and removing shoes. Of course, it might not bother you to take your time to get your shoes on, but when you are rushing for school or work and you’ve just laced up those thigh-high boots, it makes it difficult if you’ve forgotten anything inside!
(Editor’s note: Yes, you could technically wear your shoes inside your apartment or house and no one would know, but my view is that you should think about the fact that if you are renting, it doesn’t seem very courteous to other people who will live there later…)
3. Train Card
When I first rode the train from Narita Airport to Shinjuku Station, where I changed trains and rode to Musashino where my hotel was, carrying a small suitcase and a backpack during the Friday night rush, I was overwhelmed.
I tried to order my ticket in Japanese, and my Japanese was so bad that the attendant didn’t understand me and spoke to me in English. At Musashino, I stared at the board that showed the train route and stations, in both kanji and romaji, and just barely figured out what train to board after what seemed like an eternity. I had to figure out the amount of money that it would cost to get to my station, and how to use the train ticket machine. This was all while I was jetlagged from a 13-hour flight from the US.
Traveling between Yamanashi Prefecture and Tokyo nearly every other weekend as we explored, I would like to think that I was proficient at estimating the cost of my trip (you have to prepay your ticket) and generally not getting lost. However, I wish I had more quickly discovered the train card.
The Suica card is one of the more popular cards, which you can buy for about ￥500, and then you load money onto the card. When you enter the train station, you simply swipe your Suica (you can even leave it in your wallet and swipe), and then swipe again when you leave. The money is automatically deducted from your card. It won’t expire, so you can keep a balance, or you can estimate as closely as possible if you aren’t in Japan for long periods of time. I used my Suica on my last trip to Japan, and there’s still a small balance for when I go back.
It’s so convenient to have a pass! There are other passes available in other areas, and the cards aren’t accepted in all cities for all train lines, so you should make sure that you can use the card before you go to a certain destination, but it really makes travelling easier if you’re going to be in a certain region (e.g. Tokyo) for a while and want to travel around. It’s also really helpful when you have to navigate huge train stations like Shinjuku without having to worry about buying your ticket.
So, those are 3 things that I’d wish I’d known more about before I lived in Japan! What kind of culture shock have you experienced in Japan or another country? Was there something that you wish you’d been more prepared for before living in a new place? Let me know in the comments!