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I didn’t know what they ate besides sushi.

I didn’t know the makers of all those video games I played as a kid were from Japan.

I didn’t know karaoke was so big here. The extent of my ability to communicate was konnichiwa and sayonara.

Needless to say, I hadn’t done my homework by the time I touched down in Japan and officially became a gaijin.

Having been here for only four months, there are still many things I haven’t done, but I have managed to pinpoint several things that stick out about Japanese culture.

The level of professionalism is nothing short of great here. Convenience store clerks and fast food employees treat their jobs as seriously as bank managers or medical practitioners. I find this inspiring. It brings to mind the movie "The Last Samurai," when Tom Cruise’s character spoke of the samurai as individuals who dedicate themselves to the perfection of whatever they do. This spirit seems to permeate Japan. Rarely do you find people who don’t seem totally invested in their endeavors. On the same note, I’m told that after a person lives here for a few years, going back to the States is a culture shock for the worse.

Here’s my take on some other subjects in Japan:

¶ Currency: I never used to carry cash. But here in Japan, you can’t always count on places accepting credit cards. Make sure you always have a healthy amount of yen on you. I actually liked the change (no pun intended). I didn’t realize how sick I was of signing my name all the time.

¶ Driving: In my opinion, you couldn’t create a society where driving was a less-attractive proposition than it is here. Besides the tolls (it costs a fortune to get anywhere), there’s also the outrageous gas prices, which are worse here than in the States. Plus, navigating the streets is nightmarish. The roads are narrow, and there’s a greater dependence on landmarks to get your bearings. Also, beware the driving habits of cab drivers. With all that said, the bottom line is most new folks to Japan adjust just fine to driving here. But just know what you’re getting into.

¶ Trains: The train system here is the perfect antidote to all that plagues drivers. Trains go everywhere. They are affordable, easy, air-conditioned and pleasant overall. Buy a "Pasmo" card. For too long, I wasted time counting out the exact amount I would need to ride the train. I didn’t think it was annoying until I got my first Pasmo.

¶ Food: I viewed the fact that there were so few Japanese food options in the States as a sign the food might not be so great. You’ll be happier if you keep an open mind. I stubbornly held out hope that I’d be able to get what I was accustomed to eating. If you dig, you can find what you’re used to at recognizable burger and pizza chains, but you’re more likely to find eggs, mayonnaise and fish for toppings. The good thing about the food is the health factor. You have to look long and hard if you’re trying to spot an overweight Japanese person. That’s because they actually eat oatmeal, rice, eggs, vegetables, fish and soba on a regular basis, unlike many Americans.

I’ve been here for only four months, but rather than embracing the Japanese diet, my mentality has been to be patient until I could get over to Yokosuka Naval Base and go to Chili’s. I don’t recommend this approach, even if you happen to live on Yokosuka. I keep hearing that the more Japanese food you eat, the more you crave it. I plan on that being the case with me. I just wish I had started that goal sooner.

So, this obviously isn’t the States, but take a second and let that sink in. Sure, you can find enough to satisfy your American cravings, but it’s also a cool thing to lose the cravings and allow new experiences to filter in. They’re probably going to anyway, but if you can roll with the punches with a smile on your face, you’ll be a happier gaijin.

Stripes in 7

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