Written by Eric & Kelly Farrow in cooperation:
About a month before Kelly and I left for Okinawa, I purchased the most recent release in the Animal Crossing series, "New Leaf"(AC:NL). I originally thought this could be a cute game we could share, and Kelly really liked the monotonous errand quests in Ni No Kuni; so I thought it would be a slam dunk on the 12+ hour plane ride Kelly was in for.
Dōbutsu no Mori, or Animal Forest (branded Animal Crossing in North America), was conceived when the creator moved from Nintendo's offices in Tokyo to their offices in Kyoto. He missed interacting and playing with his family and friends, he realized how important this was to his life and decided to form a video game around his family and friends in Tokyo. (source)
We were surprised how accurately this game represented our new daily life in Japan in many many ways:
-Omiyage: Gift-giving is a vital part of Japanese culture. "Omiyage" are gifts it's pretty much obligatory that you buy for many people when you come to their home, go on vacation, or get a new job. Just like how all the characters in the game are constantly giving you gifts and reciprocating when you give them anything, people in Japan are gift givers right up there with hobbits. One example that blew me away recently was when I came in to work and found a beautifully wrapped gift on my desk. I couldn't read the handwritten banner attached to it, so I asked a co-worker what the deal was. One of our fellow English teachers and his wife recently had twins, so the English department threw them a shower, which I attended only because it was also a party to welcome me to the staff. (I didn't contribute to his gift in any way or even really know him at the time.) Well, flash forward a few months, and this family, whose life is already crazy with new twins, now is socially obligated to give all of us who attended the shower (and anyone else who gave them a baby gift) a return gift! Not only does this happen with showers; it's the same deal with weddings and even funerals. Yes, the gift industry here is going like gangbusters.
-Recycle Shops: In the game, ReTail, the local recycle shop (think thrift shop), is always a happenin' place to visit. You give your unwanted stuff to the lovely pink alpaca who runs the joint, and she gives you cold hard cash in return. It's the same here! While there are places where you just donate your stuff and get nothing in return, many recycle shops give you cash on the spot. Eric and I brought the TV that came with our apartment to the recycle shop, got $100 on the spot, and put that toward a new one. Badda bing!
-Convenience Stores/Combini: In Animal Crossing, these adorable little raccoons run a convenience store where you can get supplies to be a better... uh... Animal Crosser. Here in Japan, convenience stores are far better than the 7-11's so famous in the U.S. Not to knock 7-11 (who doesn't love a good Slurpee now and then?), but Japan's Lawson, Coco, and Family Mart are way too awesome for their own good. You can get a nice lunch, tons of delicious drinks, and in some places even fresh baked bread and pastries. Food aside, people visit these stores to pay bills and take care of other business as well. In Animal Crossing, there's always a machine in the combini that you can use for these purposes as well.
-Japanese Banking/ATMs/Cash: In Animal Crossing(AC) it is rather strange to find one of the two ATMs in the game at the post office. The only other ATM I know of is on the Island. The ATM in AC is also where you pay off your bank loans. ATMs in japan are located in most convince stores, post offices, and most shopping centers. I think most Japanese pay their bills in cash at the ATM or at the counter at the Convenience Store or at the Post Office. Online banking and bill pay as far as I know don't exist and on one hand is good; almost impossible for someone to steal/hack your password, when such a thing doesn't exist and on another hand bad I have to go the local convenience store every time I want to pay a bill and only in cash. Unlike in the States and in AC Japanese ATMs have banking hours, ours closes at 8pm sharp, if you absolutely need cash after 8 go to the ATM at the convenience store and pay a hefty fee of up to 120 yen (depends on the bank and the amount of the withdrawal). Most Japanese ATMs are located in a phone booth style shelter for privacy, which is great but our ATM doesn't have a ventilation system(maybe they want you to get in and get out quickly) it gets uncomfortable
-Bug Collecting: In Animal Crossing, you just can't make serious money unless you're willing to spend time bug collecting. In Japan, I doubt you make much yen in this pursuit, but it's a big thing here! At the local 100 yen shop in the summer, you can buy nets and small holding tanks for the bugs you catch. We even saw a family catching bugs at a beautiful park once! When I walked into the mall and saw a huge sign with big, terrifying beetles on it, I knew I was in Animal Crossing country. I went up to the sign and saw enormous bugs of all types for sale! Many are pretty expensive, too.
-Festivals/Matsuri: Throughout the seasons in Animal Crossing, festivals come up fairly often. There are fireworks shows, moon-viewing parties, and Halloween events. The only aspect of festivals that didn't make its way into the game is the abundance of fried food, cotton candy, and shaved ice!
-Standees/Cutouts: One fun decoration you can add to your town in the game is what they call a "face cutout standee." I never knew the actual name for these little doohickeys, but they mean a wooden sign with a hole cut in it that you stand behind so your face is on the sumo wrestler, whale, sushi chef, or whatever image is on the sign. Then of course you take lots of pictures of it and laugh yourself silly for years to come.
-Town Songs: When you first start up AC:NL they ask you to create a town song that you hear when you enter stores or when you talk to a resident of your town. Well we just found out ever town/village has a Town song. The Village of Urasoe has their town song displayed along the sidewalk in front of their Library.
-Point Cards: Briefly mentioned by either Timmy or Tommy inside their store. Almost every store in Japan including Furniture stores have a point system. Spend 100 yen get 1-5 'points' each point equals a yen. Like club cards back in the states it's a way to track customers. One of the more popular point cards T-Point, we can use to accumulate points at the gas pump (at $5-6 a gallon for regular but we get full service for that price) and at the convenience store. Points can be used to purchase concert tickets, items at the point system store or used as cash in store. We have been in Okinawa for 3 months now and I think on all our point cards we have accumulated maybe 500-600 points.