I LIVE IN JAPAN / Sophia Appelbaum / Writer

Feburary 2024 (VOL.196)

Sophia Appelbaum

  • Home country/state/city: USA / Pennsylvania / Philadelphia
  • Occupation: Writer
  • Duration of living in Japan:About 10 years
  • Why do you live in Japan?: Many reasons! Currently for work

Which places in Japan do you recommend that foreigners see?

Maybe Nagano! I know it’s a popular prefecture among Japanese vacationers, but it tends to be an afterthought for anyone coming from overseas, and I think it deserves to be better appreciated. Matsumoto Castle has one of the oldest original castle keeps in Japan, and it even has the cool nickname “Crow Castle”! Nagano’s onsen-loving snow monkeys are also adorable, and the wasabi farms in Azumino are fun to visit. Plus, basically, everywhere you look is green and gorgeous.

What is the distinctive difference between your country’s and Japanese lifestyle?

Obviously there are a lot of major differences between the US and Japan, but I find some of the smaller discrepancies more interesting – like the way people treat fruit! Perhaps it’s because fruit tends to be expensive in Japan (even when it’s everyday supermarket produce – gift fruit is another matter entirely), but people treat fruit with care. Before eating, you see people carefully peeling and cutting apples into slices, or peeling the skin off grapes one by one. Americans are way more likely to bite right into an apple, or pull a handful of grapes off the bunch.

What do you miss about your maternal country living in Japan?

It’s easy to say “good pizza,” but I think the real answer is a willingness to bend the rules. In Japan, there’s a tendency to follow the letter of the law instead of the spirit of it, which can sometimes be frustrating, and makes me miss most Americans’ attitude towards following the rules. Sometimes I find myself thinking “Who does it hurt if that rule is broken? who does it help?” People working in customer-facing jobs in the US are often less polite than the same workers in Japan, as a whole, but I think that most Americans are less hesitant to bend a few rules when it’s evident that it would result in a net positive.

Obviously, really good pizza is also important, though. It’s not hard to find Italian-style pizza in Japan, but getting really well-made American-style pizza is a struggle! New York thin crust or Chicago deep dish – I’ll take either, or preferably both.

What do you appreciate most about Japanese culture?

In recent years I’ve fallen in love with Japanese seasonal culture and festivities. My hometown in the US has four seasons, and it actually has beautiful fall foliage, but I never appreciated any of it until I’d spent a few years in Japan, seeing how each season is carefully observed and celebrated. After going for momijigari with friends and enjoying seasonal flower festivals, I can really see why those Heian-era aristocrats were so obsessed with their surroundings. It’s fun looking forward to hydrangea season or hanami events every year, and it’s a nice way to be mindful of your environment!

What are your favorite Japanese foods?

Persimmon leaf sushi (柿の葉寿司)! It’s a Nara specialty, but it’s available as ekiben all over Kansai, so it’s my shinkansen meal of choice. (If you look, you can even get it in big Tokyo train stations sometimes.) Of course, that’s not a very practical everyday meal outside of Nara, so ten-don (天丼) is a close runner-up. There’s nothing like the crisp crunch of tempura and salty-sweet ten-don sauce on top of a bed of hot rice. Especially with extra maitake mushrooms.

Would you like to continue to live in Japan for the rest of your life, or you think you will return to your home country? If so why?

I came to Japan without any long-term plans, and ended up staying because, quite simply, I didn’t want to leave. In the past years, things haven’t really changed much! I don’t know if I’ll end up living in Japan for the rest of my life, since that’s not really a specific goal of mine, and I’m willing to go elsewhere if something interesting pops up. But pizza isn’t enough to pull me back to the US right now, and I don’t really want to leave Japan, either! We’ll see what the future has to offer.

Writer: Minobu Kondo
Photojournalist in Tokyo, writing for Japanese and American magazines. Publishing an essay “101 of green stories” with the other Japanese artists such as Kosetsu Minami. Languages: Japanese, English and French.

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