I feel strangely at home when I am in Japan. I realize I have merely scraped the surface of local culture and lifestyle and so it doesn't make sense to me that I should feel so at home there.
Therefore Japanese culture perplexes and intrigues me in its familiarity.
There is no obvious reason why I should feel so at home in this place where I can barely understand a few words, and certainly cannot even speak, read or write it.
And so I have been trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes it such a happyplace for me. I've come down to a couple of things.
CLOTHING & SEXUALITY
As a tomboy, in Hokkaido I really enjoyed how locals are rather laid back about clothing. It's almost like a gender-free society in some ways, where especially in stores like WEGO you can freely look at guys' and girls' clothes alike without anyone giving you a weird eye. In fact, many clothes are one-size and unisex, which is genius in my opinion. The more vintage, the more true this seems to be.
Could this be because in the past also men's kimonos were adorned with patterns and flowers?
Also clothes come in such beautiful, rich color tones and textures. The Japanese color palette is naturally sophisticated and for example in ladies clothes stores there is no clear division for how women dress as far as age goes.
When you see a lady in hot pink sneakers and camo army pants it's just as likely she's 70 as 20.How liberating for the individual! The Japanese also seem to value good fabrics and loosely tailored clothing over the bright flower print tricot stretch t-shirts we have an overload of in Finland.
I do very little shopping but when I do, I buy as much of my clothing as I can in Japan.
As far as the feminine form goes, women do wear a lot of make up in the bigger cities, but I feel equally comfortable without any, as I barely use make-up at home. Even though Japanese women seem to dye their hair a lot, they still keep their look natural. Also, there is no cleavage and very few short skirts. Most styles are lose fitting and comfy.
PEOPLE & MANNERS
When I was in Osaka last year, at a Hokuo christmas market I worked in tight interaction with people for 10 days straight. I am normally an introverted person, and spending this much time with strangers would normally be draining for me. There, I didn't however feel it was so hard.
The Japanese have a lot of respect for personal space and sometimes I feel like they put as much thought into silence as they do in words.
More than once my American or other European friends have remarked how weird Finns are when they fall into their awkward "silence mode" (if you don't yet know about the Finnish silence, come here and you'll see) where not a single word is uttered for several minutes or even an hour. In Japan, this isn't the case. Not every second needs to be filled with chit-chat and mindless small talk.
I am as intrigued by the silence as I am about the Japanese openness to learning and sharing new things. Many relationships and even brief interactions with people feel very deep even though they are born in moments.
When I was visiting in Asahikawa Kazuko taught me about edible plants that grow in nature (many are the same in Hokkaido and Lapland). She also showed me how heirloom kimonos are brought back to life in new skirts. Recycling in Japan is a no-brainer. It's an essential part of home life.
HOUSING & EATING
As many know, the Japanese always take off their shoes when they enter the home. We do this in Finland too. In fact in most traditional restaurants you take off your shoes too.
Especially in the traditional places where you sit on the floor and eat by a low table.
I really appreciate this physical action of dividing the inside from the outside which becomes also a mental one when you separate between what you were doing before going home or eating to actually coming home or eating out.
Kind of like that was that, and now is now. Take your shoes off please before enjoying a meal with us.
It's almost like with the shoes come off also another layer of formality and I immediately feel more at home.
(The bathroom slippers they still insist on in the homes are a mystery to me though.)
Also, don't mind if you slurp when you eat. Slurping makes it more delish, so why not!
Japanese food is renowned for it's freshness and raw deliciousness, but it's not just about disposable chopsticks, quick sushi and ramen.
It's been known for a long time that Japanese diet is super healthy, and I had to try cooking home style too at the hostel (top left image in pic below)
The first thing I noticed at the grocer (apart from a great variety of curious-looking vegetables and mushrooms) was the size of the meat packages. THEY ARE SMALL.
A Finnish meat package is normally 400g-700g even 1kg, but in many stores in Japan they are a healthy size of 100g or less. It's convenient of you live alone, but also, you end up eating a lot less meat and a lot more liquids in the form of meat and fish stocks or sauces.
Being on a business trip I also got to go on a couple of after-works.
The Japanese are smarter about drinking alcohol than Finns.
In Finland drinking is almost always approached with a kind of all-or-nothing gusto which is ridiculous. So boozing in the middle of the week is not a good idea, right.
In Japan, evening activities in the week seem to end well before midnight however, even as early as 10pm. How clever is that! Still fresh enough to go to work with no issues at all the next day. You have to appreciate that coming from the land of Kossu.
The last night in Sapporo we went to a tsingis-khan style lamb BBQ which was all you can eat, all you can drink in 120 minutes.
It was the perfect amount of time to have a really good celebration of a successful trip, get merrily cheeky over just the right amount of Sapporo Calssc biru and still be fine to wake up for an early-am flight.
OH, AND THE PARKS, THE PARKS!
Most Japanese cities seem to have fine array of parks and beautiful shrine gardens, but Sapporo city has three especially cool features for hikers Maruyama Park, Mt Sankaku and Mt Moiwa.
Maruyama Park is near the city center, but has a small hiking trail up to the top of the hill. The path is lined with 88 buddhist statues, each with their own lil hat and clothing. I spent all of two afternoons there reading and knitting under the trees and hanging out with the squirrels.
If you sit still for a while the chipmunks will come up to you and climb on top of you!
Mount Sankaku is a little away from the city center, but worth visiting. It's where the famous Okura ski-jumping hill is located too. I went there with a group of high school alumnis in their 60s who hike the mountain annually like a school class reunion. They had a beer keg with them, for added flavor.
From Sankaku you can see Sapporo-shi spread out, and you realize what a big city it is even if it doesn't feel like it when you're in there in the streets thanks to all the trees, gardens and plants.
They were kind enough to let this gaijin join the party.
Mount Moiwa is also neat and nearby; it's to the south of Sapporo-shi with a roapway going to the top. I took the roapway up, but rain poured hard so I asked a local hiker for the right way down (I wanted to hike down)
He didn't speak a word of English, but somehow we understood each other, and he pretty much ran down the mountain (yes, I actually had trouble keeping up the pace with this gentleman) and then drove me back to my bike. Again, super friendly and generous people.
LASTLY, MY HOSTEL RECOMMENDATION
For most of my stay in Sapporo I lived at Social Hostel 365, which I recommend to anyone travelling in Sapporo. It's really conveniently located and the owner and staff are super friendly and bohemian. Nearby the hostel is all you need; a public bath house, the Susukino station where all the restaurants are, there's a laundromat next door and of course a 7eleven with ATMs.
365 is neat, quaint and actually has a really nice view from where it sit right in front of an avenue. The living room and the upstairs single rooms look over a locally typical city street lined with trees.
I can't wait to go back.
Oh and a bike is a must if you can get a hold of one. Biking in the city is easy and seems rather safe ;)