You notice a solitary box of kara-age perching vulnerably on a shelf, inclining forwards seductively and glistening at you in all of its greasy glory, and you can't hold yourself back any longer. Your hand shakes with emotion as you reach out for it...and grab that top-pocket Kleenex to mop up the cascade of tears speeding down the crevices of your face as you realise the full weight of what you could be leaving behind. Yes, it's decision time; are you going to choose to stay in kara-age land or wave goodbye to those gloriously, ever-available golden nuggets of joy for good?
The decision to go home or stay in Japan can arise at any time; the end of a work contract, the expiry of a visa, the tragic break up of a romance, or simply because those instrumental versions of AKB48 songs have plucked one too many of your highly strung nerves. Whether you're currently in honeymoon 'will you just LOOK at those Anpanman breads' stage, or are longing for home and defiantly refuse to eat anything other than western-packaged Snickers and cheese, the decision to leave is rarely easy or complication-free. Here are a few pointers to consider when you think your time might be up.
1. Japan is, on the whole, unimaginably safe. Perhaps it's the comforting lights of the koban and konbini on every street corner, or the neighbour who comes around at 1am to tell you you've left the kitchen light on; it seems like people are always there to watch out for you. (Sometimes a little too much "_I saw you at the supermarket last night! You bought: 3 pizzas, 2 Kit Kat Chunkys, a tub of ice cream, 6 beers...._") If you fall asleep on the train, no one scribbles profanities across your forehead, and if you leave your phone on the table of a cafe while you go to the toilets, it isn't going to get pilfered. In Japan, you're more likely to be given something than have it taken from you. (Unless it's your dignity as you painfully attempt to make it look like you know what you're doing at that cook-it-yourself okonomiyakerie). (Not a real word but it sounds good).
Back at home, big city life will probably involve not being entirely sure that your belongings haven't been taken from you whilst you're still holding on to them. Fall asleep on the train? Say goodbye to all those credit cards, point cards and Polaroids you'd been lovingly squirreling away in your purse. As for leaving your phone on a table - in the space it takes for me to write DON'T DO IT, it's gone.
2. Things are CHEAP and the wages are GOOD! Believe it! Ignore the naysayers and the magazines telling you that if you even think about bringing your cardboard box anywhere near Tokyo's finest bridges it'll come with a hefty 10,000 yen a night price tag. The truth is, jobs in Japan are generally well paid, and even if that's not as well as your home country, the cost of living is likely comparatively cheaper. All of those restaurants you see in tiny villages, which make you wonder how they can possibly continue to function financially do so because everyone is eating out. Donburi, kaitenzushi, ramen shops... The world of cheap, delicious food thrives in Japan.
Finding a restaurant with prices equivalent to those at Matsuya (or one of the other donburi restaurants) back at home is a feat of the impossible and will involve feasting on a bowl of unseasoned, floor-dropped offals. So whilst you're casually hitting up the ramen shops four nights a week, your friends back at home are all feasting on pieces of extra-thin, sliced white slathered in either a) peanut butter b) jam c) Nutella or d) a wild and risky combination of all three. So when you're spending all night at an izakaya, gorging and guzzling down those jokki-sized beers, back home the only way people can afford to get that drunk (unless they're working for a financial conglomerate) is when a passing homeless guy offers them a sip of clear liquid from an unmarked bottle. Financial security can really help you to feel at ease, and may be one of the main reasons affecting the decision to settle offshore permanently. So if you love free edamame with your beer and those complimentary 'service' deserts from the local udon shop, you might not want to say goodbye so hastily. The only foodstuff coming for free back at home is a bowl of half-licked peanuts, soaked in a marinade of day old spilt beer.
3. And not only is the cost of eating out and other such luxuries comparatively cheap, it's also happens to be the most unbelievably good food you'll ever eat. Catering to an on-the-go lifestyle is Japan's forte; whether it's onigiri at the konbini, those supermarket salads, menchikatsu or a dozen freshly made gyoza, there is an abundance of choice for those who can't cook or just don't want to. The sense of the anti-gourmet, microwaved ready meal doesn't enter the equation; even 7/11 pre-prepared meals will often leave you sitting there, eyes open in wonder, claiming '_this is the best thing I have ever had.'
At home, the local supermarket 'food to go' section is a desolate, barren land full of solitary, soggy sandwiches and pots containing a few lumps of grass covered by half a cherry tomato and a shaved carrot. Ready meals are best avoided, unless you are willing to risk the eventuality of a salt-induced heart attack or consumption of horse meat.
4. The gifts. Oh the gifts. Whether it's freebie tissues outside of Shinjuku station (for what, we will never know), or a watermelon from the obaachan next door, the land and culture of omiyage will never be so heart-warming as when you've left it behind and realise that at back home, people will barely force gifts on you on your own birthday, let alone when they've made a single day trip to Disney Sea. Even those sorry looking senbei will seem like a benefaction from the gods when you go to work on a Monday morning and see that empty, hollow, mochi-free desk in front of you.
5. Equality. In Japan, there’s a feeling that everyone is equal – most of your friends are probably working in a similar field or earning a comparable wage. Even within Japan itself, the layers of wealth may not be so immediately obvious as back at home. Rich or poor, everyone is in the izakaya at 7pm, drinking from the same jugs and sharing food from the same plates.
In big cities at home, you'll be pushing others aside to get a foot in on that rat race to sell your time and soul to the highest bidder. Your old friends will either be too rich to associate with you or too poor to afford to step out of the door (depending on whether they’re attempting to get into a creative field or not). It’s not so much a ladder as an escalator to the top; one which is permanently moving downwards whilst you are sprinting up like a B grade celebrity on a terrible game show after a 3-day binge.
6. Karaoke. The most important factor of all. What will you do with your Friday nights in a world where bring your own alcohol, or nomihodai karaoke, no longer exists?
Sob in front of the TV, that's what. Back at home, people show their shamefully drunk side on the streets, or openly in clubs and bars, whereas now you can at least confine your mad, inebriated alter ego to the dark, concealed rooms of Shidax, and soak up those beers with all you can eat soft ice cream. Instead of a rowdy club where you have to pull out your own voice box and insert it into the other person's eardrum just to confirm 'yes I do want to go and get a drink', karaoke booths provide that intimate setting where real friendships can form. As you both holler All the Small Things into the mic, for the third time that night without realising it, with a slight emotional croak in your throat, you realise these are your BEST FRIENDS EVER. At home, karaoke will invoke images of middle aged women dressed in leopard print belting out Celine Dion, causing everyone you associate with to understandably reject your every advance towards the karaoke bar.
The relative merits of choosing to stay or leave are, of course, individual to each person. You may be yearning for the family reunions, the lack of hair-frizzling humidity, and the comfort of knowing whether you’re purchasing salt or sugar at the supermarket. Maybe it's been months since you've seen another foreigner and you need an out, or you're simply longing for a proper pizza that doesn't come with a potato and mayonnaise topping (or even worse, that fateful enemy, corn...)
Or perhaps the decision will be easy, and after one too many occasions spent lurking in the fried goods section in the konbini, battling with those serious life decisions: stay or go, fried chicken or a pizzaman, you'll politely be asked to leave.