Travel Notices

Even the familiar is foreign in Japan

Shinjuku, Tokyo
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

Imagine holding up a mirror and reflected back at you is everything you’re not.

Well, Japan is like that—which is why it’s so irresistible for those of us who yearn for travel experiences that make us question everything we thought we knew.

For one, they speak Japanese in Japan. Imagine that. English is not a predominant second language. In fact, outside of Tokyo, you’ll be hard-pressed to run into people who can actually converse with you. If you’re like me, this is all the more reason to go. IMHO Westerners are spoiled with English everywhere. Japan presents an opportunity to stretch ourselves in ways that few industrialized countries demand of us.

Oh, and the street signs? The train system information? The packaging on the things you buy? All written in Japanese! Folks, this is as foreign as it gets. You’ll be completely out of your element, and that, for those of us who really travel, is what we’re after, anyway, right?

Another thing, Japan is mostly Japanese. In this homogeneous society of 125 million, you’ll be a minority. Regardless of your race, if you’re not Japanese, you’ll be far outnumbered. It’s a startling experience if you’ve never had it before. And if you’re tall, you’ll feel like a giant in Japan. If you’re of medium height, you still might feel like a giant in Japan. (Sometimes like a big lumbering oaf, too.)

If you’re still with me, if you’ve got a sense of humor about all of this, book your trip and pack your bags. Japan is about to show you who you’ve never been.

What the mind can conceive, the vending machine can achieve

Over the last decade, the West has seen things like canned coffee showing up in places like Starbucks or the local convenience store. Thanks to Japan’s vending machine culture where rows of brightly lit machines offer every variation on hot black, hot black with milk, hot black with milk and sugar, cold black and on and on—with similar variations on tea—we’ve adopted some of these options for ourselves.

But just when you thought you knew a little something about Japan, betcha didn’t know what a few hundred yen can actually get you from a jidōhanbaiki (vending machine).

Try cold beer, canned or bottled, right out of the machine up until 11 p.m. at night. Need some eggs? Grab a dozen from the vending machine. Heck, get some boiled ones, too. Fresh produce, like bananas, daikon (Japanese radish) and negi (green onion), by the bundle, from vending machines. Toys, in case you forgot a gift for the kids, like Legos and Jenga, or a bouquet of flowers for your honey. Umbrellas, always handy, right out of the machine. Going fishing? How about some live bait, right there in that vending machine. You can even buy live crab and lobster from a machine. Then there’s the ladies underwear (and a whole range of questionable items we won’t get into here), along with flip-flops and even toilet paper, coarse or fine, you get to choose.

And what’s really refreshing is that the machines always seem to work. They accept coins as well as bills up to 1000 yen (US$10) and reliably spit back your change.

Faster than a speeding bullet train

Hold onto your hairpieces, the modern day shinkansen runs up to 200 mph. Since it made its debut just before the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, it has transported more than 10 billion people with zero derailments or fatalities. As with every other form of transport in this country that relies heavily on mass transit, the bullet trains run perfectly on time, down to the minute, as orderly and reliable as everything in Japan.

And you thought it was all sushi and ramen (think again)

Don’t get me wrong. Sushi in Japan makes sushi “at home” seem like an impostor. And there’s nothing like a ramen shop to cozy right up in Japan.

Eat like a local: But while you’re seeking out the culinary experiences you thought you’d have, the locals are hanging out at izakaya (kind of like a Japanese tavern) throwing back drinks and supping on inexpensive eats like goma-ae (vegetables tossed in sesame dressing), yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), agedashi-dofu (deep fried tofu in broth), tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and all manner of salads, sashimi, and noodle dishes. Look for the red paper lanterns that glow around the entrances to izakaya. When you duck in, you’ll have the option to sit on traditional tatami mats and eat from low tables like the Japanese, or sit at the bar or at table and chairs. In the winter months, your host will greet you with a warm oshibori (wet towel) to wipe your hands, or a cool refreshing one in summer. Izakaya often offer all-you-can-drink and all-you-can-eat options for a fixed price for several hours. Food comes out rather slowly but dig right in and share everything. This is Japanese family-style eating at its best.

The eats on the streets: Popular around shrines and temples, and on festival occasions are yatai (food stall) that sell Japanese street food like takoyaki (a delicious dumpling with little bits of grilled octopus inside) bathed in a sweet brown sauce and okonomiyaki (meaning “cooked as you like it”), a Japanese pancake cooked with cabbage, shrimp or pork, and green onion, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, bonito (fish flakes) and seaweed seasoning. Also keep an eye out for mitarashi dango, mochi balls (made of rice paste) skewered on a stick and slathered in a sweet soy sauce glaze.
Nightlife in Yurakucho, Tokyo

Utterings, offerings, prayers and good luck

The Japanese aren’t particularly “religious,” yet a spiritual undercurrent guides them in daily life and through times of challenge as well as hope for family, children and self. The predominant religions are Buddhism, which made its way from India and China, and Shintoism, the ancient animistic religion that recognizes spirits or deities in every thing.

Your crash course in Japanese religion goes like this:

  • Sh is for shrine is for Shinto is for jinja, or jingu when used as suffix. You will always enter a shrine through a distinctive red torii (gate). And “sh” is also for shisa, the lion-dogs that guard the entrance.
  • T is for temple is for tera (or honorifically, otera, or dera when used as a suffix). You’ll always see a Buddha image at a temple and there’s usually a massive incense burner near the entrance. Wave some incense over you, or an affected area of your body, for healing.

Mind your manners at temples and shrines. Purify yourself with a ladle of water at the basin when you first enter. Keep your voice down. Observe any rules about photography. Take shoes off whenever you see other people taking shoes off. And always carry a handful of coins to toss in the offering box. It’s not required but it’s customary.

It may be awkward the first time you try to get the prayer sequence down. Ring the bell, bow, clap twice, bow again. And then you see some Japanese person doing it completely differently so you have no idea what you’re “really” supposed to do. But fortunately, nobody’s paying attention and the idea is to simply show reverence, say a prayer, and give it up to the kamisama (spirits) or Buddha or whoever happens to be listening from on high.

Shrines offer an opportunity to deepen your connection with Japan and do a little reflecting yourself. You can purchase omikuji (kind of like a fortune) for a buck when you first enter a shrine such as Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken were fond of writing these poems in 31-syllable form known as waka. He was quite prolific and left behind 100,000 such writings; his wife left a legacy of 30,000 herself. One such waka by the empress reads:

Let us be gentle, honest
Though we lack the worldly greatness
In the bamboo grove of life
To tower over all.

Another way to reach the heavens is to write supplications or thanks on an ema (little wooden board) and hang it at the shrine with hundreds of others, or write a kiganbun (letter to the deities), which you can place in an envelope with a small offering and drop in an offertory box.

Before you leave the shrine or temple, be sure to stop in the shop and pick up an omamori, a Japanese amulet. These beautifully brocaded charms cost around US$5 and are thought to bring good luck. Some are quite specific—for example, passing an exam or finding a spouse, or safety while driving or traveling—while others are for general good fortune and good health.
Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto

Hey hey, it’s the Year of the Monkey

The Chinese zodiac with its 12 animals and their distinct characteristics permeates Japanese culture. Throughout 2016 you’ll see monkey-themed decoratives at shops and shrines. Unlike in Western culture, where people may or may not be “into” astrology, in Japan, people are in tune to the spirit of the year, depending on which animal it is. (By the way, if you were born in 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944 1932, 1920 or 1908, this is your year.) In 2017, it’s the Year of the Rooster and so on.

Saru is how you say “monkey” in Japanese. The term also means “go away” so according to an old saying, wearing red underwear during the monkey year can ward off unwanted things such as disease or financial hardship. This fun, widely held superstition makes for great gifts for the folks back home. Stop into a Japanese department store such as Seibu to view an assortment of monkey year red undies for men and women.

Lose your inhibitions and your ailments

We can’t emphasize it enough. If you really want to “see” Japan, you gotta get naked. Visiting onsen (volcanic hot springs) is a cultural tradition enjoyed by men, women and children of all ages. Because Japan is so volcanically active, there are several thousand onsen throughout this island nation, attracting tourists all year long. Business associates often go to onsen together to help strengthen relations between co-workers. Hadaka no tsukiai (naked communion) allows people to connect in a more relaxed atmosphere.

And because of its mineral content, onsen water is also thought to have healing properties. Different onsen in different locations may have an indoor bath with one type of water, a rotenboro (outdoor bath) with another type, and so on. Not to be confused with sento (public bath houses), which use regular heated tap water to fill the baths, onsen are more of a zen spa experience.

Again, be sure to mind your manners at the onsen. Cleanliness is key since everyone is sharing the water. First, you must wash and rinse yourself using the personalized shower stations that are situated away from the baths. (Pay special attention to your tush or you could get some glares.) As you tiptoe from the shower station to the hot spring, you’ll carry a scanty little towel that allows some modicum of modesty. Be sure to take the towel off before you dip in or, as some Japanese do, pile it on your head while you’re soaking in the water. Don’t wring your dingy cloth out in the water though. It’s very bad form. And, uh—no selfies, please!

Visiting onsen usually includes staying at a traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inn) but some, like Kurama Onsen in the Kurama Mountains north of Kyoto, offer day spa privileges for about $25. Less than an hour train ride from downtown Kyoto and you can be fully immersed, as it were, in a Japanese ritual.
Nasu Onsen, Tochigi © JNTO

Think outside the karaoke bokkusu (karaoke box)

Public bathing isn’t the only way the Japanese unwind.

Whether you love it or hate it, you’ve probably never done karaoke like it’s done in Japan. While generally a reserved bunch, the Japanese do love to sing. Work relations soften, friendships form, romances evolve in karaoke bokkusu from Hokkaido to Okinawa. For about US$20 per person for two hours, you get your own private soundproof room, a handful of maracas and tambourines, multiple microphones, and a zillion songs in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean to choose from. Grab friends and family members for an unabashed evening of self-expression and soulfulness.

Sure play a mean pachinko ball

Any time of day, any day of the week, walk by a pachinko parlor and you’ll see tight rows of men (and increasingly, women), smoking heavily, mesmerized by a cacophony of sound and light as they fire tiny balls into a vertical machine, kind of like a pinball machine without the flippers, and wait for the balls to hit certain pins and land in certain locations, which then earns them more balls. The object is to win a lot of balls and then trade them in for prizes such as snack food or electronics. Most Westerners simply “don’t get it” but if you’re curious, you can learn how to play pachinko.

Casting call for geisha and samurai

Picture yourself in samurai or geisha garb, strolling through the streets of a bygone era. Now make it happen at Eiga Mura (Movie Village) in Kyoto where almost all of the Japanese samurai films, still popular on television, are created. You pay about US$22 for admission and an extra fee to be fussed over by professional make-up artists and get dressed up in traditional costume for an hour-long stroll around the movie sets.

Things to bring home

  • Kimono (traditional silk garment worn by women) or yukata (lightweight cotton garment worn by men or women)
  • Zodiac memorabilia
  • Noren (Japanese doorway curtain)
  • Chopsticks
  • Zabuton (Japanese floor cushions)
  • Amulets from shrines or temples
  • Japanese pottery

Japanese pottery, an acquired taste: Generally devoid of fancy decorations or colorings, Japanese pottery tends to be rather austere, which may at first appear “boring” to the untrained eye. Yet consider that the country has more than 50 pottery towns, each with their own distinct style of pottery sprung from a rich tradition of pottery making. Kyoto, for one, is known for its Kyo-yaki or Kyomizu yaki which has no particularly unique characteristics, but happens to be famous and sought after merely because it’s Kyoto-made, each piece lovingly crafted by a skilled potter (no mass market, machine-made wares here).

Recommended reading/watching

Lost in Translation with Bill Murray
Shogun by James Clavell

Getting to know Japan is like getting to know yourself. It turns you inside out. Stirs you up. And sends you home with a glimpse of self you never knew.

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