One of my former students recently returned from a year in America as a university exchange student. She told me that, now that she is back in Japan, she wishes she could go back to the U.S. because it was like it was "not real". I understand all too well what she is talking about.
When my husband and I first came to Japan, part of the appeal was that it wasn't "real". Everything you encounter carries an air of novelty and mystery. Even things like the Coke cans, which when we got here were small and short to the way in which your change is handed over to you in a special way when you make a purchase is a curiosity.
The "mystery" aspect is in all of the things you can't understand or have never seen before. You never know when you buy something which looks like a carton of peanut butter (because it has a peanut on the front and is next to the jam and Nutella) is going to be what you think it is or if you're in for an unpleasant surprise.
Even something as mundane as traveling from place to place is pretty interesting when you see the train zipping past houses whose design is different from the ones you saw back home. When you see the huge apartments full of "rabbit hutch" apartments, rice paddies, and temples and temple gates, it all seems incredibly unreal. It's as if you've been transported to some ethereal land where the rules you grew up with don't seem to apply.
In fact, one of the things which makes the experience of living in a foreign country less real is that you lack an awareness of the rules. Back home, you're fully aware of all of the crap your parents have been putting up with all their lives like taxes, insurance, and home maintenance responsibilities. When I got here, I had no idea about the need to file an income tax return, pay city taxes, or health insurance and nobody at my work told me about it. I was completely unencumbered by these things. All of the reality of adult life is suddenly left behind as you go about your business in ignorance enjoying the exotic nature of your surroundings.
I'm not sure when it happened, and I'm sure it happened very slowly, but Japan became completely real for me. The novelty wore off of how cute the cans of Coke were. I started to understand what was in all the mystery packages I encountered. Watching the girl at the department store wrap my purchase like a gift was less of a cute idiosyncrasy of the merchants in Japan and more of an irksome waste of material. Cute little Japanese ditties that I heard again and again in shops or on T.V. became as annoying as the cute little English ditties in stores and T.V. back home. And, of course, all of those expenses and responsibilities which I was blissfully ignorant of became crystal clear to me and I started to understand what people were saying rather than experience it as background noise which meant nothing to me.
After awhile, the the way in which living in a foreign country feels unreal because you are disconnected from everything fades and it's all very real. I notice this very acutely when I read blogs written by people who haven't been here as long as me. They're delighted by all sorts of stuff which is now so mundane as to hold little appeal for me. Summer festivals are now the rage, but I've seen more than my share of them. Now, they're like the carnivals I grew up visiting as a kid. They don't change, and you can only ride the tilt-a-whirl so many times before it starts to feel boring or eat snow cones and think they're a special treat. In Japan, the kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) is no longer appealing. The opulent tanabata festival in my neighborhood is just incredibly annoying because it blocks access to shops and the train station.
The fact that Japan is now "real" is probably part of why the shine has gone off of it for me. That doesn't mean that my perspective isn't a valid one, but it does make it irritating to other foreigners who have no idea how it feels to be here long enough for the novelty to wear off. It's part of what motivates them to assert that Japan is "wasted" on me or that I should leave. To a lot of people, I don't belong here anymore, but that's only because they can't begin to imagine what it's like to live in the "real" Japan.