I guess I’ll start with the biggest news: if you didn’t know already, I’m prolonging my stint as “teacher” a bit longer and moving to South Korea to teach English. That’s right: Teacher Haley is making a comeback! This time it is not a solo mission; Joey is putting on his teacher pants, too.
Melissa and I were discussing my hopes of returning to the life of a teacher-traveler before I even left Asia the first time, so the plan to go abroad again has basically been in the works since I returned to Portland last May. And now here we are! Joey and I left our jobs, moved out of our Portland apartment, packed our one backpack each, and, after a few mildly frustrating hiccups (delayed paperwork because of the government shutdown, a mishap with the post office, etc.) and a brief interlude in California, we arrived in Japan for 35 days of traveling before teaching begins in the southwestern province of Jeonbuk, South Korea, at the end of April.
Until then, I’m reacclimating to life with daily language barriers, cultural shocks, and the persistent feeling of what is going on? I missed it! It feels good to be back in Asia, albeit an entirely different region in a country full of its own quirks and character. That being said, I’ve been doing my best not to compare my experiences here to my experiences anywhere else, especially Thailand, because let’s be real: to compare a squatty-potty to the warm-toilet-seat-bidet combo is rather unfair. But still: I struggle to not compare my experience in Japan to that in Thailand, as I am sure I will struggle, once I start teaching and living in Korea. However, focusing on the unique qualities of a new place helps to break that cycle of comparison.
Japan has a lot to offer. Most importantly, to me at least, the food! We anticipated some of the incredible things we have eaten: ramen noodles, karaage (Japanese fried chicken), and fresh seafood, to name a few that haven’t disappointed. Others have been more surprising: giant pickled vegetables on sticks, takoyaki, black eggs hard-boiled in sulfuric hot springs, and onigiri — a triangular rice ball stuffed with fish, meat, or vegetables and wrapped in seaweed that can be picked up on nearly every corner at 7-Eleven. And I’m not exaggerating. Japan has the most 7-Elevens in the world, 18,860 as of 2017 to be exact. Convenience culture here is huge!
Which leads me to one of my favorite crazy, beautiful things Japan has to offer: hot vending machine coffee. Stick with me here. It sounds wild, I know: I have been in Japan for a little over two weeks now, and the thing that I am going to rave about unapologetically is vending machine coffee. But it is impressive! Even more ubiquitous than 7-Elevens in Japan are vending machines. One, two, or five of them live down every alleyway, in front of every convenience store, in parks, and on street corners. According to one report, approximately 1 vending machine exists for every 23 people living in the country.
The truly mind blowing part of this whole vending-machine-coffee operation is that cans of hot and cold coffee come out of the same vending machine, conveniently differentiated by red and blue if you’re paying attention. We discovered this one day on accident a few days into our trip; I used the bathroom and came out to Joey cradling two cans, eyes wide, awestruck smile on his face. He slid me a can and the same goofy, awestruck smile crept across my own face. We were converted, then and there; $1 canned coffee one or two times a day is now our go-to.
Among other vending machine product offerings we have found canned corn soup (not bad), canned bean soup (not great), and sparkling water (no La Croix, but it still does the trick). Fewer and further between there are also vending machines that exclusively sell ice cream, cigarettes, and alcohol. Yep, you can get a can of beer or a single serving of sake for a couple of bucks on the go. The first few of these machines we encountered were out of order; but, undeterred, we persisted in our search. I’ve enjoyed a lot of beers in my life, but few have I enjoyed as much as the Kirin I finally got out of a machine on a street corner.