Tag Archives: Things I love about Japan

Do I Love Japan? Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.

In my last post I opened the question of whether I love Japan or just lust after it. And I was surprised by the response. Not that my post went viral (or anything remotely close), but I had a fair few people message me to say that it struck a chord with them. So I’ve decided that I will unpack those points on the love/lust difference, trying to think about them in a wider sense.

So here we go,

Love for Japan

Courtesy of ku.sagi on Flickr. Original.

Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.

Why? Because our calling is love.

We are designed to be in community. We were made to cultivate and care: for each other, for this planet, for culture. We are wired so that we get most fulfillment when we give, not when we get. And the world is wired so that it flourishes most when we live from love, not lust.

Now, look there are lots of things that I really enjoy in Japan. If you’ve been around here for any length of time you’ll be able to join me in reciting the list: onsens, soup curry, snowboarding, canned coffee . . . it goes on.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying those things. In fact I think I’m meant to. But love insists that such things are to be enjoyed in a way that befits a love for God and for people. Love recognizes that good things are to be enjoyed in such a way that others enjoy them too.

Lust differs from that because lust is about me. Lust doesn’t share. Lust is selfish, greedy, and uncaring. That’s why sexual lust is so devastating. It turns people into objects–literally–and then simply uses them. Lust takes something good and twists it to meet our self-centered desires.

Love serves others, but lust serves ourselves. And the results are really ugly.

But our lusts can be insidious. We can lust in a way that looks quite respectable, even admirable, to those on the outside. Lust truly does subvert, to the point that we might not even notice it ourselves.

A lust for fame or success can be just as subversive to our calling of love.

To quote from that apparently-soon-to-be-revisited classic Zoolander,

“Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people’s lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?”

OK, once you’ve stopped quoting the rest of Zoolander let’s continue. (I should also point out using that quote doesn’t mean I agree with the definition of love from that film.)

But in all seriousness, that kind of “I’ll make it whatever it takes” attitude can very easily lead to a lustful attitude where people who get in the way of our ‘success’ become obstacles to be avoided, pushed aside, or manipulated to meet our end. In other words, they become objects to used rather than people to be loved.

And the thing is that our original intention may have been noble. We might have drawn up our agenda with people in mind. But as D.A. Carson puts it,

“People don’t set the agenda. People are the agenda!”

Lust, in whatever form it takes, distracts us from both our specific callings, whatever they might be, as well as our general calling to love God and love our neighbour. You can’t build both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of self. Trust me, I’ve tried. Like, really, really tried. It doesn’t work.

Thoughts, questions, stories?

Do I love Japan, or is it just lust?

Chase After Love

I mentioned in my last post the question of whether I genuinely love Japan or whether I simply lust after Japan. I get that’s a slightly strange statement so let me explain what I mean.

This is something I’ve been thinking about ever since a conversation I had with a Scottish friend last Summer. He’s lived in Japan for about nine years, so he’s seen a fair bit of life here.

We were hanging out in Starbucks (don’t judge me, it’s a convenient meeting spot) and on the table near us was another Westerner, chatting with a Japanese girl. My friend overheard him whilst he was waiting in line and afterwards told me that the guy had been boasting about how much he made teaching, and how he had lots of money for ‘play.’ The guy’s tone made it clear that he was talking more ‘playboy’ than ‘playmobile.’

Anywho, afterwards we were talking about that whole subject. Not so much the sex-industry in Japan, but more the fact that some people come to Japan with the sole purpose of getting what they can and then leaving when they’ve had their fill. In other words, they come to Japan driven by lust, not love.

And that made me remember this post my friend wrote, based on teaching by Benjamin Nolot (one of the folk who head up Exodus Cry) on the difference between love and lust.

You should definitely read the whole post, but here’s the main points:

  • Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.
  • Lust exploits. Love protects.
  • Lust consumes. Love pursues.
  • Lust seeks instant gratification. Love waits.

When it comes to human relationships these differences are devastating. And I think the principles apply more broadly as well.  I can be tempted to view Japan with lust, rather than love. I can be tempted to join the ranks of those who come to get their fill of Japan, when I’m meant to be here to pour myself out for Japan.

And so these last few months I’ve been wondering about my motives for being in here. Do I love Japan, or is it just lust?

Because I have to be honest here: I’m no better than that guy in Starbucks. As they say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And that’s a grace that I need to have continually pouring into my life. And a grace that I need to be continually working out in my life.

And so I think this is an important question to ask. And not just for me, but for all of us, wherever we are. Are our actions, our words, our plans driven by love for the people around us, or are we motivated by a desire to get what we can?

So in my next few posts I will go through those points, thinking through how loving Japan looks different to lusting after Japan, and hopefully also helping you think through how you can better love those around you.

Japanese food: the good, the bad, and the natto.

I’ve been in Japan for almost two weeks now, and I’m finally feeling like I’m actually here. One of the things that has helped me feel like I’m in Japan (you know, besides from the two million Japanese people who live in Sapporo) has been the food I’ve eaten.

I guess I’m a bit of a foodie, because lots of the key things that define Japan for me are foods. So let me share with you some of the foodstuffs that are making me feel at home in Japan.

Like most countries, some Japanese food is all-round amazing, some of it is not really tasty in itself but somehow is really good, and some of it should be eradicated from the face of the earth.

In other words, with Japanese food you have: the good, the bad, and the natto.

 

The Good

I guess one of the least well-known Japanese dishes is ‘curry rice’ (カレーライス). This is a shame, because it is almost incontestably tastier than the better known dishes such as sushi or even – dare I say it – ramen.

For me curry rice has a real home-made feel to it, even if it’s from a restaurant with a vending machine. But curry rice that is actually home-made is even more amazing. Especially when the person who makes your curry shapes the rice into a map of the island of Japan you’re staying in.

Check this out.

Japanese curry rice in the shape of Hokkaido

 

The Bad

You have probably picked up on this by now, but one of my favourite things about Japan is canned coffee. I love it.

The thing is that canned coffee is, if I’m honest, not very good in terms of being coffee. And yet it is somehow amazing.

And like the curry rice, part of the great thing about canned coffee is the way it looks. By which I mean, the insane over statements that get printed on the cans.

Check this out.

A can of coffee

In case you can’t read it the claim for this particular coffee is,

“Gold Is A Premium Coffee With A Radiant-like Beauty Perfected With Premium Beans.”

Not a single word of that is true. And yet somehow it’s still really good.

 

The Natto

Again, you may have heard me talk – or rather rant – about natto in the past. I do not love it. For the simple reason that it is nothing more – or less – than condensed foulness.

I would post a photo to prove that point, but it’s hard to convey the depths of the horrendousness of natto through a photo. So I’ve made a video.

However, I haven’t edited it yet, so you’ll have to wait a few days for that.

But if you could watch the video, then you would have picked up that I have a cunning plan to get myself to like natto. Well, I say ‘cunning’ .  .  .  stupid is probably a better word.

See I tend to be quite vocal in my hatred of natto (as with anything, really) and this has caused me to be reprimanded on several occasions by natto-lovers. I have been informed that natto is simply an acquired taste, and that to reach the necessary level of acquirement it is necessary to eat natto at least ten times.

Now I try to be a trusting, outgoing kind of person so I have decided that I will give this ten times natto thing a shot. By my count I have now clocked up five attempts at eating natto, leaving five more bowls of the slimy, smelly skunge before I am able to either eat natto with some degree of enjoyment or not eat it with a clear conscience.

 

And there you have it: Japanese cuisine making me feel at home in Sapporo.

What about you? Do you have foods that you love/hate about Japan, or anywhere else? Or foods that make you feel like, “Ah, now I am really here!”?

Things I Love About Japan: Onsens

In my last post I made passing reference to onsen. In case you don’t know what onsen are, or Incase you do know and are wondering why I would be looking forward to them, let me explain myself. Or rather, let me explain onsen.

Onsen (温泉) literally translates as “hot spring” which is a very accurate description of what they are. But it doesn’t come close to conveying how amazing they are.

Japanese Macaque relaxing in a volcanic spring in Nagano prefecture, Japan

“Onsen Monkey.” Used with permission (Asteiner on Creative Commons).

Imagine you own a hot tub. Except this isn’t just a plastic tub surrounded by wooden decking in your back garden. This is a natural hot spring, made of smooth rock and overlooking a sun-kissed valley filled with prancing deer. It’s beautifully hot water.

In fact you own not just one hot tub, but half a dozen, each set to a different temperature. Some indoors, some outdoors. Some of them have jet streams. Some of them even have gentle electric currents to help you relax. And you have a couple of saunas.

It’s like you own the world’s most amazing bathroom.

And that’s what an onsen is like.

Except they’re open to the public. And so they tend to be filled with naked Japanese men (they are separated into male/female sections).

Now I get that this is where your enthusiasm may have just waned. The idea of being almost fully naked (you do get a small towel) in a room full of strangers is possibly your worst nightmare.

I understand where you’re coming from. I appreciate that our culture is so obsessed with body image that we judge ancient greek statues of Hercules for lacking muscle definition. But the point of onsens is not to compare your body to other people. It’s about being so relaxed that you don’t mind being naked.

Plus if you feel really self-conscious, you can go in the sauna and watch sumo on the TV.

Everything about a visit to an onsen is brilliant. The mini road trip out into the countryside (the best onsens are always out in the countryside), scrubbing yourself until you are painfully clean before you get on, the initial “ah ah ah” as you attempt to jump straight into the hottest bath, boldly claiming you’ll stay in the sauna for 5 minutes and then desperately willing the clock to go faster, spending an age slowly trying to lower yourself into the “weak” electric current bath and then having an 80 year old Japanese dude slump into the “strong” one with a loud, “Ahhh, that feels good!”

Oh, and of course there will be one random Japanese guy who decides to use you to practice his English.

Even the post onsen stuff is fun. You get out, quick shower down, get into clean clothes, buy yourself a bottle of milk, followed by some Mitsuya Cider (it’s actually lemonade but hey) and then you find a tatami mat to lie on whilst you watch whatever ridiculous celebrity panel show is on the TV.

Speaking of which, it because of the general lack of TV that I enjoy onsens so much. I know I mentioned it twice in my description, but for the most part onsens do not involve TVs or any kind of media. At their best, onsens offer simply hot water and some unspoiled nature.

Now I’m not about to start hating on people who watch TV. If that’s how you relax, then that’s fine. I’m aware that compared to my description of onsen an evening watching House of Cards might seem even more appealing to youEspecially if you’ve tried to go into an onsen before and been too freaked out to go through with it.

That’s cool. To each their own. Or, as the Japanese would say, “Ten people, ten colours.”

But I personally prefer to relax by removing myself from the stimulating world of TV, film, Facebook, etc. Even reading, which I love, can get in the way of my relaxing.

Doing absolutely nothing: that is my idea of relaxing. And doing nothing whilst sitting in water that warms me to my very bone marrow… yup that’s pretty much my perfect evening.

So I am very much looking forward to doing some serious chilling out in onsens once I’m in Japan.

 

OK, sharing time. Have you been to an onsen? Loved it, hated it, or take-it-or-leave-it?

What’s The First Thing I’m Going to Do When I Get Back to Japan? Eat Ramen!

Now that it is confirmed that I’ll be going out to Japan this May, my brain has been busy running through the things that now need to be done. These tasks are mostly tedious, and so I have allowed my mind to dwell on some of the stuff I’ll do once I get to Japan.

First on that list is deciding what the first thing to do is. As in… anyway, when I get to Japan the first thing I will do is: Eat ramen.

Well, obviously the first thing I’ll do is grab some canned coffee, but that won’t take long. My first proper action will involve locating ramen, and of course some gyoza to accompany it.

Let me explain briefly what I’m talking about.

Oh, you know about ramen? You had some at Wagamama?

You know nothing of ramen!

Ahem… what I meant is that the difference between the ramen you get in Japan and the stuff on offer in the UK is roughly equivalent to the difference between real-life Mt. Fuji and a badly-drawn triangle.

Me eating ramen with my friend Takuma

Enjoying some ramen and gyoza with my good friend Takuma. A bad photo of some good food.

Anyway, in case you really do know nothing of ramen, it’s essentially noodles in broth, except much more exciting than that sounds. The broth is what makes the ramen. Deep, rich, and in all other ways very tasty. It generally comes in 3 flavours: salt, miso, and soy sauce, which incidentally is my order of preference. Throw in some quality noodles, some sliced pork, a bit of chopped up veg, and a half-boiled egg for good measure and you have yourself a meal my friend.

Almost. A bowl of ramen is not complete without a plate of gyoza on the side.

Gyoza are dumplings. But again, such a translation fails to do them justice. They are bite-sized bundles of delight. I defy anyone to sit before a plate of steaming gyoza and remain an atheist. They are irresistible proof of divine benevolency.

Interestingly, ramen and gyoza are both originally from China. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. But they are one of the most popular dishes in Japan. Kinda like the way us Brits have adopted and adapted curry to our tastes.

A fair few of my Japanese friends have traveled overseas. And when they get back to Japan they invariably seek out a ramen restaurant as soon as possible. I understand why: Ramen is – in case you hadn’t gathered this already – amazing!

But enough about me, what about you? If you’ve spent time in Japan, or elsewhere, what’s the dish that you really crave? And if you do know a restaurant in the UK that sells Japan-level ramen, please let me know!

Things I Love About Japan: Customer Service

An automatic fanning robot beaver cools me down on a hot day

In-store automatic fanning robot beaver: as you do (Photo by Fraser Tooth)

Today I want to share with you some of my experiences of customer service, Japanese style. This is possibly the most famous of all Japanese traits. Anyone who has visited Japan comes back with stories of how they were treated like royalty. I guess in the UK we’re so used to be treated as an annoyance by shops, restaurants, doctors, hotels… in fact any business run by people. Anywho, here’s a few examples of why I love Japanese customer service.

One time in Japan I went to a museum with a friend. I had arrived early so had bought some canned coffee from the nearby vending machine. He arrived, I finished off my coffee and we walked in.

I couldn’t see a bin, so I asked the receptionist if there was one inside, holding up my empty can to demonstrate that I hadn’t just confused the Japanese word for ‘exhibition on ancient Egypt’. Without blinking she replied, “I’ll take care of that” and promptly took the can from me and placed it under the desk.

I’m pretty sure that there actually weren’t any bins in the museum, which means that she had to later go and find a bin outside to put it in, or take it home with her. I am also sure that if that were the UK I would have just been told, “There’s no bins here, because food and drink aren’t allowed. Please dispose of that outside.” Actually, ‘please’ might be a bit hopeful.

And it’s not just in going-the-extra-mile that Japanese customer service shines. It’s the standard stuff that makes you smile. Like at Starbucks when they echo your order throughout the entire staff. Admittedly this might be a ploy just to make you order the most complicated (and hence expensive) drink, but it really is quite fun to order, “White Chocolate Mocha Frappucino” and listen to it being repeated by a chirpy chorus of baristas and waitresses.

But if you really want to see customer service in action, then you need to go to a Japanese convenience store. I will wax lyrical on these in more detail some other time. But they deserve an extra spot of recognition here for the customer service they provide.

It begins when you enter the store and are greeted by a chorus of, “Irashaimase!” This is essentially an insanely polite way of saying, “You are here.” And it is shouted extra-loud. I assume both to display the staff’s appreciation of you entering their store, and to knock any final sleep you had out of your eyes. As with the Starbucks order, this greeting reverberates through the staff, who are somehow always dotted throughout the entire store. You know that thing Meerkats do when one stands to attention and the rest follow suit? It’s like that: heads appear over the top of shelves and from behind doors to smile in your direction and reassure you that you are indeed in a Japanese convenience store.

Then there’s the speed with which the staff will get from their position re-stocking the canned coffee (God bless them!) in the far corner of the shop to the checkout.  Even if there’s already a manned checkout, staff will perform parkour to ensure that they reach the second till before you have time to create anything resembling a queue. And then–and this never fails to make me smile–they tell you with a look of utter seriousness, “Terribly sorry for keeping you waiting so long.”

And even if you don’t buy anything–if you just wander around the store and then walk out again–you will be serenaded as you exit with a cheerful, “Than you for visiting. Please come again!” Which of course you will, because convenience stores in Japan are amazing!

I could go on. But instead I’ll had that task over to you. Do you have any examples of great customer service? You don’t have to stick to Japan. In fact, they don’t even have to be positive examples. This can be like a communal counseling session. Remember, sharing is caring!