When in Japan

Coming from America to Japan has been a bit of a bumpy ride. I am not referring to my flight, but rather my adaptation to everyday life.

Many things are foreign to me, but if there is one thing that has made my transition easier, it is Japan’s ultra-modern conveniences. But I’m still waiting for flying cars.

Vending machines line every street in a way I have never seen. At the push of a button, a person can buy an ice-cold soda or some scalding hot tea anywhere at any time. Although Japan has age restrictions similar to those in the United States on the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes, those beverages are sold in vending machines as well. Not only can a person buy a half-liter of Kirin Ichiban at a random sidewalk vending machine, but he or she can also drink it there. Of course, drinking on the street in Japan will earn some dirty looks from passers-by as it would in America, but at least it is legal here. As far as serving alcohol in Japan goes, there is no hour in which businesses must officially stop selling it. This is perfect in the event of an all-nighter.

Speaking of all-nighters, anyone who likes the nightlife in Osaka must occasionally stay out until morning. Everyone has a different reason to stay out all night, but this mainly happens because the last subway train on almost every line in Osaka runs around midnight.

This is where the convenience of the subway system does a 180.

At 11:30 p.m., most night owls either decide whether they will head home, or they have forgotten the time altogether and end up with no option but to break morning. Luckily, there seems to be an infinite amount of bars and karaoke places open all night, serving full menus and catering to weary, drunken Japanese and their foreign friends.

Restaurants don’t usually stay open late, but they have their own set of conveniences. Most have a small metal cylinder with a button in the middle situated on the wall side of every table. This is a call button, which signals to the servers that your table needs something. Picture it: No more tapping your fingers, grumbling about bad service, waiting for a refill on your iced tea and figuring how much less of a tip your server will receive. This is especially true because one doesn’t have to leave a tip at restaurants in Japan. I will repeat this again for emphasis: No tipping at restaurants in Japan, ever.

Japanese servers are paid well and more than one server takes care of a table. Also, with the standard overzealous kindness to patrons at restaurants and a little help from the call button, visitors won’t find much bad service in Japan, though I’m sure that exceptions do exist.

One slight inconvenience in Japanese restaurants is the lack of napkins. Restaurants do have napkins, but most restaurants, aside from the top-notch places, only offer small, thin, one-ply napkins of the “hotdog stand” variety. This is not because the management is being frugal, but because the nation is. Japan is a small island with a serious lack of natural resources and raw materials. So the less napkin offered, the less paper wasted, I guess. I won’t even mention the restrooms. Just consider carrying a handkerchief.

No review of Japanese convenience would be complete without a trip to the convenience store. When I say that these stores are everywhere in Osaka, I really mean it. There are several major names in convenience stores here, but most notable is a chain called Lawson’s. Near my apartment, I can walk from one Lawson’s to another Lawson’s in three minutes flat. Is this the epitome of convenience or extreme saturation? I still don’t know.

These types of stores carry the standard fare of goods found in 7-Elevens except with only Japanese products. That means more instant Ramen cups, salmon-filled rice balls, okonomiyaki (a pancake-like food previously mentioned in my column) and lots of manga (Japanese comics).

The major difference is a customer’s ability to buy concert and airline tickets or pay any type of bill you could imagine at the front counter. In this cash-based society where personal checks don’t exist, convenience stores have really cornered the market on … convenience, I guess.

Within such an imaginative country, filled with intelligent and inventive people, it’s good to know that I am never really in need of anything. Sure, the maps are difficult to read and the destinations are hard to find, but at least every subway train is on time to get me there.

I’ve found it both easy and difficult to fit in to the carefree and consuming atmosphere of Osaka life, and I will always be a bit homesick deep in my heart.

I guess there’s no convenient cure for that.

Daniel Shimek is a former Oracle graphic arts manager now living in Japan.