Photo:Kirk K on Flickr

Only in Japan: 5 Things You Can't Find Anywhere Else

It is probably fair to say that most of my Japanese friends here in Osaka and indeed the friends I made in Tokyo and Okayama too, would not class themselves as “typical Japanese”. Most of them can speak English to some extent, and a great many of them are well-travelled, having ventured beyond Japanese shores to see the “big, wide world” on numerous occasions.

I was having a coffee with such a friend last weekend. She has business interests in China and as such she divides her time largely between Japan and her current base in the largely autonomous, for the time being at least, city of Hong Kong. She also spends a lot of time in the UK, where some of her family are based. My friend remarked that the coffee in this particular little Kissaten (traditional Japanese café) tasted especially good.

“You just can’t get coffee like this abroad,” she lamented. “In London and Hong Kong it’s all Starbucks and Pret-A-Manger. It’s not bad, to be sure, but it just doesn’t taste real to me.”

Indeed whilst I am a fan of Starbucks in particular, it’s not unreasonable, one would think, to surmise that the coffee there is most likely as synthetic and mass-produced as the cups that it is served in.

“I know what you mean,” I responded. “It’s the same when I go for a curry here.

“I mean, the taste is great, and they can make them as spicy or as mild as you like, but somehow it just doesn’t measure up to what I used to eat back in Glasgow.”

This probably isn’t a fair comparison though. After all, curry isn’t exactly indigenous Japanese cuisine, and Glasgow has won the prize for best curry restaurants in Europe for most of the past decade!

But our discussions triggered an interesting series of thoughts in my mind. I’ve got a lot of friends like my coffee companion who also comment frequently on the things that they miss when they are not in Japan.

Helen K on Flickr

Sometimes its something as basic as a cup of coffee brewed just the way they like it. Other times it can be simple food items, and sometimes it can be something much more complex. So join me today as we look at the top 5 items that you can only get in Japan, and the Japanese themselves can’t live without.

1. Authentic Umeshu

Ryan Fung on Flickr

Now, of course umeshu, the famous Japanese plum liqueur can be bought outside of Japan. However, it will, invariably be of the mass-produced, factory distilled variety. I’m talking about the good stuff. The kind you can only get in Japan. The variety that the owner of the local bar has probably made himself, and has been sitting in his attic aging for a good 3 or 4 years before he allows you the privilege of drinking some of it.

Believe me, it may sound pretentious, but there is a huge difference in the taste, the texture and the overall quality. Authentic, locally made umeshu is a stable of any and all good local bars in Japan and is an absolute must try item for any new visitors to Japan or indeed returnees!

2. Kotatsu

Jerich Abon on Flickr

You thought this was going to be another story all about food and drink didn’t you? Well, not today my friends, because our next entry on the list is actually a very popular household furnishing and an essential for the often cold Japanese winter.

Silvia Sala on Flickr

The kotatsu on the face of it, looks like a coffee table with a blanket wrapped around it. Under the blanket however lies the secret of the kotatsu’s popularity. There is an electric heater underneath that makes the whole area under the table lovely and warm. It’s the perfect remedy for those frosty toes on a wintery night!

3. Watermelons

Güldem Üstün on Flickr

Ok, again these are available in other countries, but pretty much all of my Japanese friends claim that nothing beats a good, ripe Japanese suika, as they call it.

toyohara on Flickr

Indeed, you’ve probably read on here before some of my complaints about the seemingly high prices of fresh fruits and vegetables here in Japan, and indeed watermelons are no exception with really high quality specimens sometimes costing several thousand yen at a time. But believe me when I say, that upon your first taste of a genuine Japanese watermelon, you too will quickly realize that they are indeed worth every penny!

4. Japanese TV


Nelo Hotsuma on Flickr

Now, this is one area where, perhaps, I maybe don’t empathize with my Japanese friends fully. I’m not the biggest fan of Japanese TV to be honest, but it’s certainly unlike anything you will see in any other country. With its blend of variety shows, travel documentaries, uniquely Japanese comedy shows and in inordinate amount of programmes about food, I can understand why my friends miss it so when they aren’t in Japan. Particularly, my friends often lapse into misty-eyed reminiscence when they talk about Japanese TV at New Year. Of particular interest is the huge musical, comedy and variety extravaganza called Kohaku Uta Gassen, that runs for several hours on NHK in the run up to midnight on New Year’s Eve.

5. Beer Gardens and All-you-can-eat-and-drink Menus

Cookie M on Flickr

Again, not exactly a unique Japanese concept with this final entry, but certainly nobody does beer gardens and buffets quite like the Japanese. On a hot and sunny day, after a long shift at the office, nothing brings a smile to the typical Japanese salaryman’s face more quickly than enjoying a few cold beers and selection of foods at one of the many rooftop beer gardens that run “all-inclusive” menus throughout the summer months. And, apologies if this sounds disrespectful, but somehow that beer tastes all the better when its served fresh from a portable keg by the ever-smiling, sweet young waitresses who tirelessly tour these gardens keeping your glasses full.

Robert Thomson on Flickr

It’s funny, all-you-can-drink menus have actually been illegal in my native Scotland for a few years already, and considering how little my Japanese friends drink compared to the “ten pint challenges” some of my friends in Scotland used to put themselves through on a Friday night, it's hardly surprising. The all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink business model was tried once in Glasgow, and the said establishment went bankrupt in less than 6 months!

So how about you, have you visited Japan before, and if so what do you miss the most about being here?
And if you are planning to come for the first time, which of these items and experiences are you most eager to try? Leave a comment below and let me know.

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