I’m back from Japan! And super late in declaring that here because I returned October 1!! It took me a while to count – damn my memory – but it’s been 9 years since the last time I travelled there, and a full 11 years since the first time I did study abroad in Tokushima at age 16. Needless to say, a LOT of things have changed in 9 years…pretty much all in good ways, especially for a foreigner.
Cash has been dethroned!
Part of me is a bit nostalgic for the cash-only society that I remember from my youth, but it’s REALLY convenient to use credit card!! Overall, many retail shops accept credit card now — and not just American Express — and large (famous) restaurants. The small, local eateries are still cash-only places, but that’s totally fine since…
ATMs are foreigner-friendly and convenient
No more need to convert stacks of dollars to yen at the airport. From a security standpoint, you are therefore less likely to have your money stolen or misplaced. I felt weird about this and still exchanged about $300 USD at the airport (and for an American, the airport in Japan is sadly the best exchange rate I can get). That was spent on food, random knickknacks, and train tickets that my JR Pass didn’t cover. It was kinda perfect, there was only a few yen coins left by the end of 2 weeks. The ATMs are at every 7-11 and..well…basically any of the innumerable convenience stores in Japan, with fees imposed only by your own bank. For most banks, that means 3% conversion fee and a $2.50 transaction fee (same price as in the States). Considering the exchange rate you get in Japan, it was a good deal.
English has spread
This should be obvious, but I found myself prepared to translate everything spoken and written in Osaka for my boyfriend. 9 years ago, when I went with friends, this was an exhausting task. A few days in and I found myself so mentally tired from translating every sentence for my friend, I wanted to just lie in bed all day. Tokyo has always been a place with lots of foreigners, and locals who understand English. Osaka was not like that 9 years ago. Now….compared to Tokyo, it still isn’t that English-friendly. I have a friend who recently worked in Japan for 1.5 years, in both Tokyo and Osaka. She told me that it was difficult in Osaka, because there was drastically less English there compared to Tokyo. But there is noticeably WAY more English signage now, and even little local alleyway restaurants have a good chance of having English menus. Their staff may not actually speak English, and many menus I saw in Osaka looked like they were simply submitted to Google Translate (weird word choices and syntax issues). So my Japanese language skills were still useful, at a level where I wasn’t getting mentally drained. 80% of the time we had to catch a train somewhere or were searching for a place, it was really handy to be able to ask for help in Japanese…and understand the answer. I imagine the rural areas are still not English friendly.
Tourism has spread
This is another obvious one, although in a way I guess I should be more surprised it hasn’t spread more thoroughly than it has. Especially when you compare it to how drastically NYC has changed in 10 years. Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo are still 99% recognizable. The changes are small but pretty good for foreigners. Dotonbori, which superficially looks kinda like our Times Square, has grown a little. The river area has been nicely done up, with seating and a boardwalk sorta thing. Some of the restaurants are more “grand” looking than I remember, so you don’t forget you’re in a tourist spot. Don Quijiote, among a few other stores, now boast “TAX FREE” signs to entice foreigners. I don’t know if that was a thing before, but they certainly didn’t display giant signs about it 9 years ago. There’s a little more people too, and the low-key parts of Namba are starting to….I guess, “gentrify”. Areas that used to have pretty much no one now have interesting looking shops, restaurants, and people.
Consumption tax increased :(
I guess it was bound to happen! Japan’s economic woes are no secret. Unless you have not been paying attention to Asian news. 9 years ago, their tax was 5%…and that was AWESOME and easy to mentally calculate. They recently bumped it up to 8%, very similar to what we have here in NYC. That’s almost double, though, and the news says Japanese consumers (obviously!) haaaate it. Here in NYC, we have NO TAX on clothing that costs less than $110 per item, so paying tax on clothes again was a liiiittle foreign to me.
Things are affordable
Okay, this is a subjective comparison point! Objectively, you could write pages and pages about Japan’s economy in the past 10 years, but I was really happy that a lot of stuff worked in my favor this time around. 9 years ago, the exchange was generally 110 JPY to $1 USD. When we went this Fall, it was ~119 JPY to $1 USD! So even if I was buying from stores we have in the States, like Uniqlo or Muji, it was still cheaper because the exchange rate worked in our favor. Personally, I think Japan had always been relatively affordable in terms of goods and food. I know people have said the opposite of that. Some things that should be less than $3 in the US would be more like $5 in Japan, but generally a lot of meals didn’t exceed $11 USD. You would be stuffed full by the end of it, too. You know what you can get for $11 at a trendy or non-ethnic restaurant in NYC? A tiny appetizer.
You could say Japan has expensive fashion, but you could say the exact same about New York, or any other major city. I see people drop literally hundreds of dollars at a clothing store in NYC….but I also see people buy 3 whole outfits for $25 in NYC. It’s the same with Japan. If you buy during a sale, or go to certain stores (which are still of good, wearable and fashionable quality), you can find some great stuff. I was finding a lot of knitted clothing for cheap. A thick, knitted sweater would cost you $60 to well over $110 here in the US. In Osaka, I was grabbing giant knit sweaters for $35-45 USD. Big and slouchy is in, and there was lots of it for relatively cheap. If you find an oversized cable knit sweater here in the US, of shitty and scratchy quality, it’ll still cost you at least $60.
Moreover, 9 years ago I was 20 and in college. I worked 30+hrs a week, more in the summer, and that’s how I afforded a trip to Japan in 2006. But being able to afford it meant I had a strict budget. I couldn’t eat more than 2 meals a day, and that first meal was often cheap stuff from the convini. But now I’ve been working for those 9 years….I’ve got a real job….and I could afford splurging and getting whatever I could shove in my face. Felt GREAT being able to just go down the menu and order top-of-the-line stuff at yakiniku and yakitori places. And that said, ordering top-grade, A5 and A4 meat at yakiniku for 2 people, drinks included, ran us about $80 USD. I can have a severely mediocre meal for 2 in the US for $80 USD.
Not much stuff is Japan-exclusive anymore
That means there’s no point in buying a lot of what I used to buy as souvenirs. Uniqlo is now in the US, and growing fast. Muji is in the US. And thanks to online shopping, pretty much every Japanese makeup product is available to Americans as well. It’s typically only like, $2 extra for most makeup stuff online, compared to buying it in Japan….and even if you save a few bucks, you have to think of the limited luggage space you may be using up. I’d rather pack light but spend a little more than have to drag a heavy suitcase full of stuff around the country. I even saw the Rosette facewash pasta, which is cheap and personally I love it, in a Manhattan Chinatown grocery for $5 USD. CHEAP! And if you’re an artist and love geeking out over pens, markers, and brushes that used to be Japan exclusives, well, just order from JetPens.com.
In 2006, I struggled to close my suitcase, and wore several layers of clothes on to the airplane….because I couldn’t fit them in my luggage. SO many clothes, manga, etc. were bought!! In 2015, I went with a carry-on sized suitcase and left with some room to spare in it.
The one category that’s still good to buy and bring over from Japan is food. And even though we have green tea Kit Kats readily available in NYC, they are freaking $9!!! In Osaka, it was about $2 USD.
Smartphones have changed the world.
In 2006, the first iPhone had not been released yet. Smart phones didn’t exist. If I got lost, I was actually lost and thought I might die (that was in the farmlands of Tokushima). If you wanted internet, to email your family or post something on Facebook, you either waited for the communal computer at your hostel or ducked in to an Apple Store to use their computers with free internet. And if you wanted to call a friend in Japan OR call your family overseas….you bought a calling card and used a payphone!! Man! I can barely fathom doing that nowadays. Some areas in Japan still have those iconic green payphones, and the nostalgia really hit me hard. I used to use those every day when I was living in Tokushima. There were so many nights were I slapped mosquitos on my leg and held the green payphone’s receiver between my shoulder and cheek.
I have T-mobile, so I get free 2G internet in Japan, and free texting. Unless its GPS couldn’t locate me, which happens sometimes in cities, I didn’t have to worry about being lost. I was always in contact with my family at home. I could FACETIME my dad on the otherside of the world!! Oh, and a smartphone is also a portable dictionary, and being able to check Tabelog for restaurant recommendations was really useful.
That’s all for my comparisons! It became a little longer than I expected…but if this was 2006 NYC versus 2015 NYC, I sure as hell would have 100 pages of content up here! Next I’ll be writing about how my boyfriend’s first trip to Asia (or simply a non-English speaking country) affected him :)