Before You Die

State College, PA | Summer, 2006 | 21 years old

It has come to my attention of late that there have been a number of publications trading on the theme of “you must experience a given set of a specific category before you die,” which is simultaneously a noble and a rather unsettling sentiment, given that, no matter how good a given film may be, most of us prefer not to be reminded of our own mortality by something that is, in the big scheme of things, basically irrelevant. The other major problem with a name like that, I’ve realized, is that they promote procrastination by presenting these big, great experiences as one-day projects (as in, “one day I’ll finally see The Princess Bride”). To my few but loyal readers, I will apologize in advance for being a bit more guide-booky than I generally have in the past, but I hope that everyone will be able to look beyond such matters and indulge me in a little bit of what I think is actually kind of important, if perhaps a little self-indulgent (but what guidebook isn’t?).

As such, I’ve realized that it’s high time to put such worries behind me and simply give evidence of why I’m still associating myself with a country I’m so publicly cynical about. I’m going to avoid the truly obvious things, like seeing a sumo match (though, really, unless you plan to bet you’re better off finding a training stable and asking permission to watch while they practice, since it’s just as exciting and you get a much closer view), but at the same time, some things that should be obvious seem not to be, and for that reason I like to think that I’m justified in pointing them out.

Without further ado, then, I present the awkwardly yet accurately titled: About a Dozen Things You Need to Experience in Japan at the First Opportunity that Presents Itself.

1. Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is known primarily for being Japan’s biggest and most wholly intact castle. Yes, there are others, such as Osaka Castle, but Himeji is noteworthy for the additional reasons that it was never the site of any actual fighting, and that all of the reconstruction was done as accurately as possible to the period it was built during (which can’t be said of Osaka Castle, leaving many purists up in arms).

The castle itself is a bit off the beaten path, in the city of Himeji – naturally – which is about a 3,200-yen round trip by train from Osaka, but the trip is very, very worth it, even for those who aren’t all that interested in historical significance. The castle is a marvel of architecture, not only in its internal design for use in war, but also in its location and appearance: it is built atop a hill, and its design is successful in what Frank Lloyd Wright is so famous for, centuries before he was born, inasmuch as it appears almost “organic” in its integration with its surroundings.

However, this is not to say that the building isn’t still imposing. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: despite the thick groves of trees surrounding the grounds, it is always easy to see most of the structure, and indeed, the castle is readily visible from many parts of the city itself, most particularly the main street, which runs essentially directly toward the castle.

There is a small fee for entrance to the castle grounds, which goes ostensibly toward the upkeep, and it’s certainly more than worth it. The city of Himeji itself is largely unremarkable, with a large trade, it would seem, in antique shops. There is perhaps a bit of poetic justice in a town most famous for a centuries-old building having a great deal of stores that sell old things, but at the same time, my experiences may simply be limited by the short time I spent there.

2. Byodoin

I suppose it’s simple enough to make a case for a building’s significance when it’s placed on money, and this is obviously the case with Byodoin. The temple – or at least the building itself, as it was originally a nobleman’s palatial manor later converted into a temple – turned 1,000 years old in 1998, and it is certainly telling that it is still in such good condition.

The temple is located in Uji, Kyoto (accessible via the local-only Uji line on Keihan), and really isn’t very far out of the way for anyone who lives in the Kansai region, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to get as many visitors as it deserves. Certainly, it isn’t for everybody, as it’s much more so an art museum nowadays than anything else – quite literally, in fact – but that which is there is very impressive, and even more so once the renovations have finished. It houses a great deal of Buddhist art, as well as simply being a beautiful building. It’s perhaps not quite as interesting or as exciting as Himeji Castle, but still worth checking out.

Oddly enough, this is one of the few things on this list – and by far the least expected – that can be found outside of Japan: there is a replica in the Valley of the Temples on Oahu, Hawaii.

3. Arashiyama, Kyoto

At first glance, Arashiyama, a town on the northern end of the Kyoto prefecture, seems to be little more than a tourist trap, with a quaint little town filled with souvenir stores and restaurants surrounded by temples, temple complexes, and period clothing (though I’m told that, as far as old-timey stuff goes, the cormorant fishing at night – which uses fire to draw the fish to the surface – is quite a sight). However, with a little bit of effort, it’s possible to find quite a bit of actual intrigue, even for those burned out on souvenir shops.

First, and perhaps most obviously, is the bridge for which the town is so famous. The bridge itself is long and gorgeous, and the views it provides of the surrounding mountains are at least as impressive, with Japan’s Springs full of the well-known cherry blossoms. However, what most Westerners aren’t aware of is the fact that Fall is just as impressive a season, as far as tree colors go: Kyoto is famous within Japan for foliage that erupts violently into shades of red and orange that are more frequently associated with crayons than with trees in the United States, and a mountain full of trees covered in varying shades of such colors is certainly not one to be missed.

Next, there is the Iwatayama Monkey Park, affectionately nicknamed “Monkey Mountain” by the foreigners I hung out with. As the name would suggest, the park – yes, there is an admission fee, as with essentially anything else in Japan – is a mountain, and it is inhabited by a great deal of monkeys. Even for those who foster less excitement at the thought of visiting our genetic cousins, the climb up the mountain is worth it for the view of the area – Arashiyama is a very flat town, at least as far as building height is concerned, and the view of the area’s development juxtaposed with the hills jutting out of the ground, untouched by construction, is an interesting contrast more than worthy of a few photographs.

Finally, well off the beaten path in Arashiyama, beyond where the quaint tourist town ends, and far past where the road becomes outright rural, is Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji, so obscure that even many of the locals had never heard of it. Far north along the roads, and right before a tunnel, you’ll find a small bus stop (Otagidera-Mae, of course) and what appears for all the world to be a rather small and unassuming temple. The outside is, of course, nothing to write home about – the standard two Niou statues, guarding the temple with their angry and fearsome stares, are as by-the-book as they come – but once you step inside and see another set of Niou, much smaller and with much more Charlie Brown-esque proportions, you realize you’re somewhere special.

Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji has a surprisingly long history: it’s over a millennium old, and has been destroyed multiple times by both fire and flooding, and has moved from its original location to a rather unassuming location in what was perhaps an attempt to hide from the wrath of nature and civil war. To make a long story as short as possible, in 1981, a famous sculptor offered to donate his talents to the temple in a rather unusual way: he offered to teach anyone who would come how to carve stone, and as a result the temple now has over 1,100 amateur statues, many of them rather tongue-in-cheek, or in some cases, downright silly. There are many reasonably ordinary statues, but there are also a very large number of more creative types: an upside-down Buddha, standing on his head; a surfer; a photographer; old men pouring each other drinks, or telling a secret; a saxophone player. Despite the obvious similarities brought about by what was obviously taught – the vast majority of the statues have heads nearly half the total height of the statue – there is a great deal of variety among these tiny statues, and between the entertainment value of exploring the statues and the peaceful tranquility of the moss-filled grounds, Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji is easily one of my favorite places in Japan, if not anywhere.

4. Taiko

Taiko is one of the other entries that can be found, to some extent, in the United States, but it’s much more common in Japan, and besides that, it’s just plain cool. There’s a certain tribal joy to a half-dozen people playing a group of drums ranging in size from “pie pan” to “the size of the person playing it” in exquisite unison, and, as odd as it may seem, the lack of melody or anything beyond rhythmic textures can be oddly relaxing, despite the fact that many of the bass notes produced by the larger drums are so powerful that they tend to rattle your entire chest.

Those outside of Japan would be recommended to try to find some sort of Japanese festival in their area – Philadelphia, for example, has one annually in Fairmont Park, and features such drumming every year.

5. Local, independently owned restaurants

The last entry of the first half of this list is also the last entry that’s grounded in the more “traditional” Japan: any visitor to Japan would do well to try at least one locally-owned, non-chain restaurant, often the more obscure the better. Their prices tend to be very reasonable, and the food is inevitably amazing. Of particular note is anywhere specializing in udon, but this is in large part due to my belief that sushi is somewhat overrated (which is itself in large part due to my not being particularly fond of seafood). Kitsune udon is a popular soup, almost always delicious despite its seeming simplicity (the only things in it beyond the noodles and the soup itself are a sheet of fried, seasoned tofu, chopped green onions, and often sesame seeds), and often there are variants available as well, my favorite having essentially a beef donburi topping of shredded beef, cooked onions, and ginger.

There’s a whole lot more to Japanese food than sushi, and understanding this simple fact can open the doors to a wide variety of deliciousness.

6. International chain restaurants, just once

At the same time, oddly enough, there’s also more to Japanese food than, well, Japanese food. No major restaurant chain has made it in the Japanese market with any degree of success without some significant changes, be they major or minor. Domino’s, for example, sells themselves as a luxury item – their specialty pizzas have things like asparagus and crab legs on them, and can cost upwards of the equivalent of $35 or $40. McDonald’s sells “Fish dippers” four for a hundred yen – think “Fish McNuggets” – and offers ketchup not in packets but rather in little plastic tubs sealed with foil. Wendy’s offers pork sandwiches, and their chicken – much like the Japanese Kentucky Fried Chicken’s – is dark meat, which the Japanese market tends to prefer.

The little differences add up, and can certainly be a little annoying in some cases (like if you happen to prefer white meat chicken), but they’re almost always at least a little interesting.

7. Any given giant arcade

I know I’ve already written an article gushing about the joys of the Japanese arcade industry (long story short: well-maintained, up-to-date arcades that are easily accessible by foot, or large enough to make a specific trip worthwhile), but it’s definitely worth pointing out that the Japanese arcade industry refuses to accept the Western idea that they’re only for adolescent and young adult males.

The larger ones tend to have sections for any given demographic, with a wide variety of easily-accessible games on the ground floor – air hockey, crane games, and easy-to-grasp videogames, like racing games, light-gun games, and gimmicky music games like Samba de Amigo – and progressively more complex stuff as you head upstairs, often with a little alcove for “traditional” button-and-joystick arcade games (fighting games, puzzle games, scrolling shooters), one for more difficult music games, and a variety of other novelties spread out (like a game where you have to land a passenger airplane, or a dog-walking game, or one where you play the role of a firefighter). There is quite literally something for everyone there, and if there isn’t, by some unusual chance, these complexes also tend to have other activities like pool tables and bowling available.

Interestingly enough, though the standard price of Japanese arcade games can vary from fifty to 200 yen – both of these being uncommon prices, compared to the usual hundred-yen buy-in price – and seems a bit high to foreigners, it is practically unheard of for even the most specialized game to cost more than 200 yen. Compare this to Dave & Buster’s, the perhaps obvious counterpart to this sort of complex, and you’ll soon realize that their five-dollar price tags on certain games undermine their own attempt to become somewhere to go for an evening on at least a semi-regular basis: twenty dollars will last an hour or two at Dave & Buster’s, but two thousand yen will almost inevitably have change left over even after a long amount of time spent at, say, Round 1 (a chain of these larger game centers).

8. Osaka’s Kaiyuukan Aquarium

Osaka’s Kaiyuukan aquarium (readily accessible from the Osaka-ko subway station) is noteworthy primarily because of the combination of a huge ferris wheel outside of it and – more importantly – the fact that it contains one of the world’s largest single fishtanks. The collection of fish and other marine life is impressively diverse, as well, and includes a sunfish, various otters, and the ever-popular penguins.

Admission is a bit on the pricey side – around 2,000 yen – but it is definitely the sort of attraction that is worth visiting once. Thankfully, the interior is also very, very tourist-friendly: all signage is available in both English and Japanese (though, oddly enough, as you progress through the aquarium, the English gradually turns to the proverbial “Engrish”), and the visitors’ pamphlets are also available in English. Also of minor note is the fact that, at the end of the year, a large Christmas tree-shaped series of lights is constructed on the front of the building, and illuminated at night.

Truth be told, it’s a great thing to visit if you’re already in Japan, but compared to much of the rest of the list, I must admit that it isn’t worth the trip abroad in and of itself.

9. Karaoke

Karaoke is, in many ways, available in the United States, but not commonly in the same form you can find it in within Japan. While many Japanese bars do have karaoke available, the real draw is in the businesses who specialize in it, offering a plethora of soundproofed rooms, each with a pair of microphones, a good sound system, and a big-screen TV to display the lyrics and ridiculously generic “music video” footage of people walking and driving around places. There is also a remote control for choosing a song with the aid of the phone book-sized song lists, and, most impressively, a little touchscreen device that allows users to search by artist or title.

Beyond the convenience and impressiveness of such a huge list of available songs with such ease of searching, the best part of spending a night at a karaoke place is that it tends to be cheap – you can spend two or three hours there for, often, less than a thousand yen, and that includes (generally nonalcoholic) drinks. The toughest part, really, is convincing the shyer members of your group to actually pick a song and sing it.

10. The Night Market

Japan has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, even at night in big cities. As a result, particularly when you’re with another person or two, staying out after dark is remarkably nonthreatening. The practical upshot of this is that in ever major urban area (and even some minor ones), you’ll find a large group of young adult merchants plying their artistic wares, musicians who do it just for the sheer joy (rather than, as is often the case in the United States, because they’re homeless and need donations), and the occasional magician. There’s something rather heartwarming about people coming out at night to do what they like, simply because they can – it’s easy to forget that Japan is known not for its personal freedoms, but for the restrictions placed on adults, strongly recommending that they do whatever possible or necessary to blend in with the crowd.

On weekend nights, it appears, the crowd looks the other way.

11. The Kobe Luminarie

Finally, we come to the Kobe Luminarie, a spectacle put on by the city as a memorial to the victims of the Kobe earthquake of 1995. It is easy to compare it to Christmas decorations and other similar occasions involving millions of tiny light bulbs, but as strange as it may seem, there’s more to it than that – a substantial amount of the city is absolutely covered in little light bulbs of various colors in ornate patterns, and they’re lit up in the evenings for the second and third weeks of December (the 2006 Luminarie is from the 8th to the 21st of December). The most unfortunate part of the Luminarie is how difficult it is to describe in mere words: only photographs really do it any amount of justice. Luckily, the web site for the Luminarie (www.kobe-luminarie.jp) has a small assortment of past years’ main street decorations, but even those fail to capture the immense scale of the entire thing.

As for getting there, the Luminarie is easy enough to find from Kobe’s San-no-Miya JR station: look for the solid city block of lights, and the enormous crowds to view it, and then just get in line to be one of the average five million visitors to see it. I said that Otagi Nenbutsu-Ji was my favorite part of “classical” Japan – this is by far my favorite part of the modern one. No one in the Kansai region in December has any excuse to miss it.

The thing about traveling is that it’s so easy to put it off for some other time, some far-off place where you think that you’ll suddenly no longer have any responsibilities to worry about. My recommendation is that you work under the assumption that it only gets harder from here, and just go and see and do what you’ve wanted to see and do. There’s no greater regret than the one caused by what you never got around to.

Delicious! and Only a Dollar (Plus Tax)

State College, PA | Summer, 2006 | 21 years old

It took me a long time to realize this, perhaps longer than it should have, but it’s finally occurred to me that the reason the Japanese eat so little compared to Americans is because they love food. Stories abound of Japanese businessmen whose life goal was to try some local specialty in some far-flung corner of some obscure little island in southern Japan, or to visit every independent ramen shop in the nation, or other such lofty goals. Is there an American equivalent? People will drive pretty far for a White Castle, but even then, you have to acknowledge that it’s still a chain restaurant, and the biggest difference you’ll find from region to region beyond “is there a White Castle nearby?” is whether they give you ketchup on your tiny oniony hamburgers without the customer having to ask for it.

The United States is the land of fast food commercials that use, as a primary selling point, the amount of food you receive. Taco Bell advertises the fact that you can “get full off a value menu.” Burger King has a sandwich called the Stacker, advertising that you can get as much as a pound of beef on it. Hungry Man frozen dinners proudly shout from their labels: “1 lb. of food!” There can be absolutely no mistaking who won in the fight between “quantity” and “quality” in the United States, and it can be pretty easy to cynically assume that the consumer has, in many ways, lost out as well.

Contrast that, then, to Japan’s television commercials for any sort of edible product. Not only is it rather uncommon to be exposed to any mention of how much you get, and certainly not in terms of “your burrito will weigh half a pound,” but in fact the most common sentiment expressed – in fact, the most common adjective used – in these advertisements is some form of “delicious.”

The fact that it is an unconditional, asterisk-less “delicious!” is something the United States’ consumers are unaccustomed to: it is perhaps rather telling that that seems like a somewhat novel concept to the American consumer, because advertising food products based on their taste is simply not done here. You advertise the amount the consumer gets, or you sell an experience, but you never tell the consumer, “Buy our product on the sole merit that it is delicious!” unless it has some sort of qualifier.

“Delicious, and yet reduced-fat!”

“Delicious and only a dollar (plus tax)!”

“So delicious, you wouldn’t think it was good for you!”

Of course, perhaps there’s something more to it, as that last sentiment reflects: in America, more so than most any other part of the world, you’re going to see moral judgments associated with foodstuffs in what is quite frankly a rather bizarre manner. Self-control is ignored, and instead we project onto what we eat whether we should be eating it. There is no moderation expected of anyone, anywhere, except for the people who make the products. Indeed, food is treated like any other guilty pleasure: long periods of self-denial because of the misguided belief that it is inherently “bad” (rather than that there are portion sizes that are “bad”) followed by binges, followed by even more guilt.

In Japan, on the other hand, people seem to tend to be a whole lot more willing to accept that they probably shouldn’t sit down and eat a whole package of Oreos in a single sitting, or that they should order the biggest item on the menu at a given restaurant. The emphasis is, as I’d mentioned before, what tastes good, and due to historical tendencies, the Japanese tend to be much more into subtler flavors and less rich foods. There are no “bad” foods, except in terms of flavor – there are simply those that you have eaten too much of.

I am by no means trying to suggest here that either country’s population is homogeneous, of course, because that would be silly. However, the next time you watch television, pay careful attention to what, specifically, the advertisements for food are selling about their products – you may find yourself rather surprised by what you see.

Home Again

Hirakata, Osaka | Winter, 2005 | 20 years old

There is a saying: “You can’t go home again.” Of course, on the very basic, very literal level, it is clearly untrue: I write this from my bedroom at my permanent address in the United States, for example. However, there is more to the concept of “home” than mere physical location. Rather, a certain degree of mental and emotional comfort is expected, and therein can lie the problem.

The America I returned to is different from the one I left, but that will always be the case whenever returning to somewhere you’d left. Sprint’s logo is different. Stephen Colbert has his own television show. An American puzzle with a Japanese name (Sudoku) is sweeping the nation, and providing a nice counterbalance to all the English names all over Japan. Certainly, most things have stayed the same, and I’m simply noticing the differences, but that’s what always stands out anyway.

Rather, the biggest surprise has been how quickly I managed to get back into the same old routine with minimal retention of what had happened to my thought processes: a dollar is suddenly a significant value, now that it is paper, and $7.00 for a foot-long sandwich is horrifically unreasonable while at the same time, 700 yen for a bowl of ramen is merely a tad pricey. To be fair, they aren’t wholly equivalent prices ($7.00 was, at last check, actually about 840 yen), but the lack of a decimal point and the ability to pay exact change with only coins does something to the brain to short-circuit the thought process that dictates value.

Similarly, the old routine of driving everywhere returned faster than I ever could have expected it to. I rather miss the ability to walk anywhere I’d need to go, and I will admit that seeing cars on the right and vertically-oriented stoplights in The Blues Brothers seemed rather odd while I was still in Japan, but returned to being second nature the moment I sat down behind the wheel. The metric system was the same way, too: I put a little bit of conscious thought into intentionally getting used to it for measurements while I lived there, and for a little while had difficulty thinking in terms of pounds, miles, and degrees Fahrenheit.

None of this is inherently bad in any way, merely curious, and, to some extent, to be expected.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to find myself thinking in Japanese from time to time, completely unintentionally, and able to understand written Japanese if I bothered to try. Indeed, for a few days I found myself mentally steeling myself for conversation in a foreign language when it came to talking to anyone at a store, not realizing for a moment that the “normal” people here speak English too, and not just my friends and me.

Now, I will certainly admit that there are benefits to living in each country, and that I missed such silly things as Reese’s cups and the Daily Show while living abroad, but at the same time, I also missed things like being allowed to have a social life not centered around getting drunk (though, being a college student, that does still make me somewhat uncommon). Likewise, there are silly little things I miss about Japan, like the ramen shop downtown, but at the same time I wish I could still walk everywhere I need to get to and have access to a reasonably cheap and very clean train system for the other locations. That, and there is a certain charm to living in a country, at least temporarily, where one can get away with making jokes like “Why is there so little crime? Because it’s against the law.”

All that said, though, I will say that all of the girls at the Japanese university I attended who had spent any extended length of time outside of their home country (and many of the guys as well) had every intention of moving out, because, while there have been such improvements in Japanese corporate culture as the “No Overtime Day” at certain smaller companies, all of the stereotypes of Japanese men spending about twenty-five hours per day at work, and then going out drinking with coworkers in order to be allowed to express opinions, returning home only to sleep before going back to work appear to be true, at least according to the Japanese students, and of course the girls expect to see little beyond a few quick cursory promotions before being forced to marry, resign, and have children.

In other words, the time I spent there confirmed what I had expected would be the case: the best time to live in Japan is as a college student, regardless of whether you’re Japanese or not. Despite all my cynicism about the country, I still highly recommend it for anyone who has any interest in it, even if it would involve some crushing disappointments when it comes time to find out what Japan really is like. Certainly, it helps to know enough of the language to be able to hold conversations and read signs, but at the very least it’s difficult to spend four months as a tourist and not learn at least something.

Was Japan all that I had expected? On some levels, happily, yes. On other levels, unfortunately, yes. And, on others, of course not. Any guidebook written about Japanese culture is inaccurate within no more than about two years, and I don’t doubt that my own will be similar. Younger Japanese no longer have any hangups about eating while walking, and many Japanese women are deciding that they would like to be able to develop their own identities the way that Western women are allowed to. They often have to move to other countries to do so, but it’s still a start.

All in all, it’s been interesting reflecting upon the culture shock I’ve experienced having returned from Japan: perhaps it’s merely indicative of the difference in how the countries perceive foreigners, but the real difficulty seems to have come in trying not to be disappointed upon returning to the United States to find that I’m no longer special by simple virtue of being exotic and foreign, and am now just some largely insignificant guy who happens to wear a cool hat.

Super Eurobeat

Hirakata, Osaka | Winter, 2005 | 20 years old

For some, there was Disco. For others, Hip-Hop, Rap, Trance, and for others still, even Rock ‘n’ Roll. Every generation has its own music that is widely considered to be wholly unlistenable by older generations, at least in the twentieth – and now twenty-first – century. Japan’s modern youth have Super Eurobeat.

Some background and explanation is of course necessary here. Back in the nineties, Eurobeat music was first developed in Europe, which hopefully surprises no one. Strong backbeats, powerful vocals, and just general danceabilty made it a huge phenomenon among dance clubs everywhere but the United States. Where it caught on most strongly, however, was Japan, where it was associated with the Parapara dance craze (think “Macarena” but somewhat more complex and slightly less embarrassing to look back on). That died down over time, as all fads do.

Then, rising from the ashes of its fallen previous existence like an allegory, came Super Eurobeat, a sort of fundamentalist Eurobeat music. The backbeats were increased from 120 beats per minute to 150 or even faster at times, and the music was further condensed into its purest elements. In fact, you too can write Super Eurobeat music! All you need to do is include the following elements:

1. A synthesized drum beat that starts four to sixteen measures after the melody, stopping briefly about three fourths of the way through the song

2. Very very fast synthesizer and/or electric guitar hooks at the beginning (bonus points for synthesized electric guitars), usually involving lots of scales

3. Lyrics that incorporate at least three of the following: Night, Love, Dancing, Fire, Whoa-oh-oh (See “Night of Fire” by NIKO for an example that contains all of these)

Truth be told, though, despite its starkly formulaic nature, I must admit that Super Eurobeat music is a guilty pleasure of mine – I’ve always been a fan of anything that can be summarized as “electric guitars and synth.” However, it seems possible, indeed likely, that Japanese youth’s infatuation with Super Eurobeat music involves more than the simple matter of just the music.

Most tellingly, it is generally heard in contexts involving a desire to break out of the norm: where American teenagers will blare R&B from their car stereos, the Japanese will make their presence known with Super Eurobeat (as well as, in many cases, flashing multicolored lights inside the vehicle – it is a wonder how some of these people even see the road from their car). In fact, the television show Initial D, which could be semi-accurately described as a Japanese take on The Fast and the Furious, is famous for its Super Eurobeat soundtrack.

What else is there to say about Super Eurobeat? It’s catchy, it’s popular, at least for the moment, and it displays an almost ironic indifference to its name, given where it’s most listened to. Of course, in a country where a vast number of the businesses are at least sort of named in a foreign language (Lawson, for example, or the almost-English Book-Off), it is perhaps little wonder that this attracts little notice.

Regions

Hirakata, Osaka | Winter, 2005 | 20 years old

I don’t know what the big deal is about Tokyo. Let me get that out of the way, first of all.

The Japanese are known for their general sense of “sameness,” yes, because it helps the country keep its collective sanity when it’s as crowded as it is. They like to think they’re all the same, down to genetics and appearance (“Black eyes, black hair”). At the same time, though, the Japanese like to think that they are somehow “unique,” and that there are certain things about their nation that are simply untranslatable and just can’t be explained to outsiders.

Luckily for Americans, however, Japan’s major regions and cities translate rather well to the United States’. Let’s take the aforementioned Tokyo, for example. Tokyo is what New York would be if it were in California: high prices, tall buildings, and all of the comparative historical significance of Los Angeles (though, oddly enough, it isn’t Japan’s largest city by population – that would be Yokohama). Those who don’t live there generally regard Tokyo’s residents as being kind of stuck up and uptight, but secretly admire and envy them. Furthermore, Tokyo is clearly the fashion capital of Japan, and by the time fads reach the rest of the country, they are often passé back in Tokyo where they started. Incidentally, the Tokyo Giants, in addition to being unusual among Japanese baseball teams for not being named for the company that owns them, are regarded almost identically to the New York Yankees: the local fans love them for winning year after year, of course, but everyone else thinks they’re simply the best team money can buy, in a rather literal fashion.

On the other hand, there’s always the Kansai region, which encompasses Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, and pretty much any other city in the region that possesses any degree of fame. Though there are parallels to America in the less significant cities (Kobe matches up quite nicely with Chicago if only because it is a big waterfront city full of commerce that is nevertheless essentially forgettable), but the two that resonate most strongly are Osaka and Kyoto.

If Tokyo is Japan’s New York, then Osaka is easily the Boston. Putting aside the parallels inherent to the baseball team (the Hanshin Tigers just can’t seem to win, despite the fans’ wanting them to year after year, and there is an intense rivalry with the Tokyo Giants), Osaka is regarded almost identically to Boston by outsiders: the people there talk funny (though fictional characters always have stronger accents than real people, of course), and are largely assumed to be kind of pushy, but at the same time they are generally felt to be more approachable and perhaps more “human” than Tokyoites. If nothing else, Osaka is one place where the Japanese will sometimes cross the street even when it says “don’t walk,” as long as there’s no traffic coming.

Kyoto, on the other hand, is very similar to Philadelphia. You can’t throw a brick without hitting a building that’s older than the United States, and most likely get in trouble for littering. In short, Kyoto makes up for comparative lack of commercial activity with its sheer historical significance; ancient capitals have that tendency. In another curious similarity to Philadelphia, with the exception of recent construction, the city tends to be rather flat. In both cities, up until recently, there were laws prohibiting the construction of buildings taller than a certain landmark. In Kyoto, the Toji temple pagoda. In Philadelphia, the statue of William Penn on top of the city hall. Incidentally, though neither city’s traffic situation is a treat to be involved in, neither one is as bad as Tokyo, New York, Boston, or Osaka.

Much like the rest of the United States, however, the rest of Japan is regarded as fundamentally uninteresting. Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and largest prefecture, is, much like the American Midwest, generally thought of as where dairy, grains, and boring people come from, if thought about at all. That, and it has a brand of beer named for a city in it (Sapporo, much like Old Milwaukee).

Okinawa is an island far south generally regarded as a warm, sunny vacation destination, much like Florida.

“Why not Hawaii?” you might ask. “Wouldn’t a warm island for vacationing be a good comparison to a warm island for vacationing?” That’s the thing: Japan’s Hawaii is, well, Hawaii. It’s something of a public secret that it isn’t Japan’s 48th prefecture, but as a friend of mine put it, “One of Japan’s goals in World War II was to take Hawaii. They only failed on that front in terms of time frame.”

Arcades

Hirakata, Osaka | Winter, 2005 | 20 years old

The first thing you notice when walking into a Japanese arcade for the first time is that it isn’t actually an arcade, and that you walked into a Pachinko parlor by mistake.

A lot of people have been wondering, no doubt, when I would actually write about Japanese arcades. Well, now seems as good a time as any, now that I’ve been here for over two months, particularly given that it was one of the cultural phenomena that I promised to write about way back when I started this whole spiel.

Once you actually track one down, which is rather harder to do outside of a major city than finding a Pachinko place would be, you’re immediately assaulted by loud noises of the same caliber as Pachinko, but of a different variety – they’re usually at least somewhat focused and often even serve some sort of purpose outside of simply being there for the sake of loud noises (though I’ve taken to wearing headphones with no music simply to protect my hearing of late), since Japanese arcades aren’t generally too big on setting machines to be muted during the attract mode demos when there’s no money in play.

The arcades here tend to come in two varieties: smaller “game centers” which tend to have a section with UFO Catchers (that’s “crane games” to the Americans, though they often go well beyond the average “grab a small prize with a claw”) and photo booths, and a section with the newest games, usually mostly 2D fighters like Guilty Gear or King of Fighters or shoot-em-ups with some sort of flying craft being piloted for the express purpose of destroying ships which have the express purpose of flying in formation in order to be destroyed. There’s also usually a variety title or two, like Mojipittan, a Scrabble-like game, and often some Mah-Jong games (often softcore pornographic).

Alternately, you have the much, much larger “amusement centers” which often have buildings as tall as ten stories and contain an entire floor of UFO catchers, photo booths, and simple, easily accessible videogames, an entire floor of redemption games where you can win “medals” to exchange for, no doubt, prizes that can be sold off quasi-legally for under-the-table “we’re totally not running a gambling operation” money, an entire floor of more expensive videogames (with sections of music games, racing games, typing games, and other such delightful novelties), and then several floors of bowling, batting cages, billiards, darts, and karaoke. The entire structure strikes the average American as what Dave & Buster’s should be like.

Given the distressing slump (or perhaps “complete destruction”) of the American arcade industry, what, exactly, is keeping Japan’s arcades afloat? Well, there are a few major reasons for it, to be honest.

1. Tradition. Japan tends to have a rather strong fixation on “quick fix” purchases – CD singles actually sell even though they’re priced at a thousand yen (about nine dollars, almost as much as an album in America) for anywhere from one to, if you’re very lucky, six songs, because albums are three times as expensive as singles are. On the other hand, Japan’s arcades are still around, if nothing else, for the same reason the United States still has movie theaters. If they didn’t already exist, it’d be a pretty difficult sell given the general preference for entertainment in the privacy of one’s own home, though Japan’s arcades have the benefits of homes being too small for some of this stuff, very specialized and very cool cabinets (like the futuristic hovercar-racing game F-Zero AX, which has a seat that rotates when you turn your car), and…

2. Competition. At least when it comes to Japan’s ultra-popular fighting games, competition is generally regarded as being as totally essential as constantly smoking. The machines are usually designed to have two monitors and two separate control panels on opposite ends of what looks for all the world like two cabinets placed back-to-back, so you don’t usually see your opponent, but in Japan you go to the arcade for competitive games to see if you’re better, not to make friends (though noncompetitive stuff, like music games, does tend to foster some sense of community). The Japanese aren’t generally too big on visitors, particularly not complete strangers, so the arcades are essentially a kind of arena where players come to see how they stack up against the rest and test their skills and strategies.

3. Image. Generally speaking, arcades in the United States have a sort of “den of sin” image, and whether this is fairly deserved is immaterial, because it’s damaging to the industry as a whole. Similarly, in America there is a very clear-cut demographic of “males under the age of thirty or so.” In Japan the situation couldn’t be any more different: it’s not entirely uncommon for a Japanese salaryman to drop by the arcade by the station on the way home for a quick game of Street Fighter or video Mah-Jong, and far more importantly, girls intentionally go to arcades in Japan, though to be fair most of the time it is for the photo-sticker booths (purikura, from “print club,” which makes just as little sense to English speakers) and games that are intended to be easily approachable. In other words, though Japanese girls do play videogames at the arcade, as there’s no clear stigma nor general assumption of “videogames are for boys only,” they’re almost infinitely more likely to pick Pop’n Music over Beatmania IIDX, or Puyo Puyo over Guilty Gear. Of course, those games are quite popular with both genders, which is why at least Pop’n Music is utterly ubiquitous.

4. Maintenance. Japan’s arcades are almost always in perfect condition, leading to higher customer satisfaction and, in turn, more return visits and, in turn, higher revenues. Indeed, Asian arcades in general are well known among those who concern themselves with such matters for being kept in as good condition as they generally are – a well-maintained American arcade is usually on par with a mediocre Japanese one at best, unfortunately. That brings me to the most important reason why Japan’s arcades are so healthy:

5. Pricing. The going rate to play a videogame in one of Japan’s many arcades is about a hundred yen. Some games, like the more popular simple-cabinet kinds (fighters and shoot-em-ups in particular) can cost as little as fifty yen, but the average is a hundred yen. As I’ve explained before, it’s a lot easier to spend a hundred yen than a dollar simply because it’s just one small coin, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s all that bad. I would gladly start paying more than the going rate of “fifty cents is kind of steep” in America if it meant that my favorite arcade stayed afloat and got new stuff on a regular basis, rather than watching those businesses go under at an alarming rate nowadays.

All in all, it really does seem like a lot of it is just cultural (and I rather imagine that online play at home will erode at least some of the competition base’s need for arcades), but the basic things like “Japanese arcades are maintained much better, as a general whole, than American ones” and “Japanese arcades charge enough to be financially viable without alienating patrons” seem like they deserve at least some consideration in America. I’m going to miss Japan’s arcades more than nearly anything else about this nation, to be perfectly honest, and I can only hope that the United States gets a collective clue before the industry goes completely down the pipes.

Five Things

Hirakata, Osaka | Fall, 2005 | 20 years old

When I first began my writing gig here, I made a point of talking about how I would be covering the everyday, mundane-to-the-Japanese things, and avoiding the “WOW THAT’S SO CULTURAL” stuff that everyone seems to write about for guidebooks, and, while I have written about, for example, visiting major temples, my original intent has been, and will remain, writing about the things that you won’t find in guide books. For several weeks now, I’ve been noticing a great deal of things, and I’d like to share them with the rest of the world. Now, certainly, there are a lot of useful little tips, like “buy your toiletries before you leave for Japan because stick deodorant is impossible to find and everything else is very expensive anyway” or “wear two pairs of socks so you don’t get blisters from all the walking you’ll be doing,” but those are either common sense or something you’d figure out quickly enough by thinking about it for a little bit. Instead, I want to say some things you’re not likely to know ahead of time just by reading your guidebooks.

Five Things You Won’t Find in a Guidebook.

1. Coke tastes different.

Believe it or not, this was the first major shock for nearly every American student I’ve met here. Now, perhaps this could be better phrased as “Coke tastes different in the United States.” Coca-Cola was reformulated in the 1980s because, as they were finding out, people just didn’t really like the flavor. There was a massive public outcry in the United States, but it was more over the idea that something iconic was being tampered with, so American Coke went back to the older, inferior recipe. Elsewhere in the world, though, ordinary Coca-Cola tastes like Diet Coke that simply lacks the awful effects of artificial sweeteners.

On the other hand, nearly all other soft drinks taste different in Japan. Ginger ale is stronger, and benefits from it, while fruit-flavored sodas are essentially watered-down, sweetened, carbonated fruit juice (as opposed to what generally passes as “juice” here, which is simply watered-down, sweetened fruit juice), and are, by and large, awful. Lemon and grapefruit sodas in particular taste rather sour and a bit bitter. That is to say, Japanese grapefruit soda tastes nothing at all like Fresca, unless it had no sugar added.

2. There are actually three Japans.

This one requires a bit of explanation, I know. It’ll make sense in a moment.

Depending upon whom you ask, though, there are apparently three different Japans, all occupying the same position on maps, in direct opposition to physical law. Visitors to Japan often intend, consciously or not, to visit only one of them, and many are incapable of noticing the presence of more than one.

The three Japans, then, are:

Japan #1. Megatokyo Reader Japan. This country consists almost entirely of flashing lights, tall buildings, and giant robots. Pocky (almost invariably mispronounced to rhyme with “hockey”) takes on a deep significance akin to a chocolate-coated Eucharist, and ramen shops are more than just somewhere to get a cheap meal. Outside of these ramen shops and between the skyscrapers, the streets teem with giggling Japanese schoolgirls as a river teems with fish, and they (the schoolgirls, not the fish) all have a crippling weakness for introverted foreigners with no social skills. Everyone else dresses like it’s Halloween every day, and for those in their early twenties, life is essentially a vacation of indefinite length. Additionally, all of the music that anyone listens to is either the theme songs from animated television programming or one of three or four Japanese musicians who are also famous, or at least well known, in the United States (such as Gackt or Puffy Amiyumi). Mount Fuji is visible from anywhere from Sapporo to Okinawa.

It’s a lovely fantasy, to be certain, and for better or for worse the name is cruelly accurate, as those who tend to harbor such a fantasy are almost invariably regular readers of the famous webcomic Megatokyo. The comic is famous for its combination of well-rendered pencil-sketch art and absurdly self-indulgent writing, as well as cursing my existence with even more intentional and ironic typos on the internet. The major problem, however, is that too many of its readers seem to view it as a documentary. It isn’t. In fact, when you take into consideration that it is a fictional account of fictional people living in a fictionalized version of a country based upon that country’s own fiction, it is something of a wonder to imagine how someone could actually be disappointed that maybe, just maybe, Megatokyo isn’t wholly truthful in its account of what Japan is like.

Those who planned to study in Megatokyo Reader Japan are generally identifiable by a need to watch more animated programming than just the really good stuff and near-daily trips to Book-Off, a used book-and-music-and-game store, in search of more comics. They are also often given away by their obsession with Japan but no history of linguistic study, and are often under the mistaken impression that Japanese will be as simple to learn as it starts out. They often give up as soon as they hit their first lingustic hurdle, in much the same way that a fledgling baseball player might get a good stride going on his way to first base for the first time, only to crash into the outfield wall after ignoring the turn at first, and getting frustrated with the game for it.

Though visitors to this country tend to clump together like platelets exposed to air, those who do fall into other social groups tend to opt to leave this first Japan for, often, the third. Those whose intention was to visit this Japan tend to be either crushed by disillusionment and hate it for the rest of the duration of their stay, or either get overwhelmed by how much of the stuff they read about in comics they keep seeing or develop a less fictional idea of the country itself and have a ball.

Japan #2. Art History Major Japan. This Japan consists entirely of gorgeous rolling hills, ikebana, tea ceremonies, and buildings made entirely of paper and wood. Visitors to this Japan will often partake in anything that sounds even vaguely cultural, winding up at occasions with names like “The Festival of Sitting Around Doing What we Ordinarily Would, Except that We’re Wearing Geta Sandals.” Unlike the first Japan, however, this one is at least based upon historical rather than fictional accounts of the country, and as such, though the visitor to this Japan will often be disappointed by the presence of the Meiji Restoration, they will have no trouble finding enough ties to Japan’s past to keep themselves occupied and enthralled, and often have little difficulty maintaining their happiness beyond a bit of short-lived, subconscious disappointment.

Interestingly, visitors to Art History Major Japan often wind up taking a good hard look at the country they’ve just arrived in and actually find it more interesting to be able to see the effects of what they came to see on what they’re actually seeing.

Japan #3. Actual Japan. This is the Japan that the natives are generally accustomed to. In this Japan, comics and animation are each simply another entertainment medium, with works that are excellent rising above the usual four-fifths-are-mediocre rule that one sees in any medium. The feudal era is viewed in much the same way as America views its pre-20th-century history: mostly romanticized but considered by most to be worth at least thinking about once in a while. Many things that foreigners are excited by, even foreigners intending to visit this Japan, are reasonably ordinary simply by virtue of having always been there.

This is the Japan where people go to work or school and come home in the evening, perhaps after hanging out with colleagues for a bit afterward. This is the Japan that worries about paying its bills once in a while, that wears a suit to work and views sushi as being primarily reasonably-priced, rather ordinary food and hopes that maybe, just maybe, this year the Tigers will win the National Series.

Oddly enough, foreigners almost always intend to visit Actual Japan primarily for a short period of time. Most of them seem more comfortable with the ordinary adult lifestyle of their home countries.

Now, though I may have said some less-than-flattering things about the three Japans, it is of course crucial to bear in mind that these are exaggerations, however slight, and that these things should be taken with a substantial pinch of salt – people only tend to get offended by what they’d prefer not to admit to themselves, and it certainly can’t help to open one’s mind to the idea of a more realistic image of Japan.

3. The Yen will destroy you utterly.

Japan’s currency has hovered around the same basic “one hundred or so yen to the dollar” point for years now. Need to estimate the price of something if it were in dollars? Remove two zeros and maybe round down a little bit, they always told us. Everything is so expensive! Bring lots of extra money compared to what you’re used to spending!

To be perfectly honest, though, most things aren’t significantly more expensive. Sure, a two-pack of pears might cost 400 yen or so, but at the same time, Japan doesn’t have a whole lot of orchard space, and more importantly, that two-pack easily weighs over half a kilogram. Japanese grocery stores only stock enormous produce.

Really, the only reason to be really worried about buying a lot of very expensive things is if buying ordinary Japanese things turns out to be such an inconvenience that the only alternative is appropriately-expensive imported products.

Rather, it is the very nature of Japan’s monetary system that will crush a foreigner’s soul and leave their wallet gasping for breath. Japan uses coins of denominations 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen. Paper money starts at the 1,000 yen point. The major issue, it turns out, is that the relative values of coins versus bills is even harder to shake than the notion of “cars drive on the right side of the road,” and it’s almost as hard to comprehend that the lowest-valued piece of paper money is a substantial amount. A hundred yen or so for a candy bar? “Oh, it’s just one coin, and it is the size of a US nickel.” Six hundred yen for lunch? “I’m paying with change!” Eight hundred yen for groceries (for example, four apples)? “Even if I pay with paper, I will only get coins back.”

Further complicating the issue is the fact that Japan is largely cash-based. I live in a suburb of Osaka (which, to be fair, is like saying that Jersey City is a suburb of New York in terms of relative size), and so, because I am not in an unusually large city, I can’t buy food with a credit card, and the only stores that make a big deal of customers’ being able to pay with plastic are generally opticians. Larger chains do tend to accept them, but they keep the equipment hidden, as though they are shameful secrets of the sort that you would only hear in hushed whispers or on the Internet’s rumor mills.

What winds up happening, though, is that the need to carry cash at all times leads to frequent ATM visits (while it’s open, of course), which lead to the decision to simply take out a large amount of money each time in order to make the trip to the ATM less frequent, which lead to having a large amount of money in the wallet, which leads to an unconscious feeling in the back of one’s mind along the lines of “MY BUYING POWER IS MIGHTY AND INFALLIBLE,” which in turn leads to impulse purchases at one of Japan’s many, many stores, which leads to not having so much money, which leads to frequent ATM visits. Perhaps it’s easier for those who grew up with such a system.

4. The Japanese love to follow the rules… until they know they won’t get caught.

Everyone seems to have this mental image of the Japanese as the society that never deviates from the norm for fear of sticking out. One famous idea in particular is the quiet city street, early in the morning, without a car within earshot, in which situation the befuddled tourist, on his way back to his hotel, sees a Japanese person going somewhere else. The tourist is befuddled because the Japanese person sees that the sign says “don’t walk,” and so he stands there dutifully waiting for it to change, perhaps even a little impatiently, like something out of a Marx Brothers movie.

The reason for this, though the tourist is unaware, is because the Japanese person is used to Japanese drivers.

There appears to be an impression among drivers that they are anonymous and that police are not in the habit of pulling people over (and, indeed, though I have heard a siren or seen flashers at least once a day since arriving here, I have never seen a car get pulled over). As a result, Japan’s drivers are some of the scariest in the industrialized world. I have seen people run red lights literally ten seconds after it changes to red in the hopes that, if the opposing traffic gets a green light, it will have been such that they either wouldn’t have had time to move into the intersection yet or that it’ll change after the person with the red light has gotten through. Indeed, I have literally never seen a Japanese motorist, no matter how indifferent to traffic law, get pulled over.

Likewise, there is a movie-and-music rental chain called Tsutaya which seems to be in on a public secret. You can rent CDs, which is perfectly fine with the Recording Industry Association of Japan, and it will cost you 300 yen for a week. I was struck, however, by the lack of subtlety involved in stocking blank CDRs in the rental CD section. Perhaps this is how Japan’s CD publishers remain profitable despite charging 3,000 yen apiece.

Oddly enough, this applies on a larger level as well. Japan is well known internationally for being at the forefront of the environmentalism movement, and as evidence we see such developments as hybrid automobiles, first sold by Japanese car manufacturers. However, Japan is also, on a much more local level, extremely wasteful. Civil servants can be seen hosing down streets that, to the untrained eye, look perfectly fine. Perhaps even more ridiculously, I got a hamburger recently at a fast food place, and it was brought to my table wrapped in some paper, then placed into a paper bag, which was inside of a plastic bag. Needless to say, I hadn’t even asked for it to go. Additionally, litter is quite common as soon as you look somewhere just a little obscure. Next to a bridge or in a gutter, it’s not hard to see cans, bags, bottles, and the like.

In other words, the Japanese are often masters of “do as I say, not as I do.” On the other hand, at least to some extent, honesty with oneself and willingness to either follow the established rules or admit to the rules’ having changed is coming into vogue with today’s ever-westernizing younger generation.

5. You can Almost Always Get Away with English Words.

It’s kind of funny, really. You’ve been having a conversation with the proprietor of a noodle shop, the Japanese is flying and you’ve been using words like kakuheiki and jidouhanbaiki and other such modern words (which, owing to their being not quite modern enough, are Chinese-character constructions designed to mimic English words and new concepts, rather than simply importing the English directly as they do nowadays), and all of a sudden you can’t remember the word for “table.”

It’s the linguistic equivalent of flying down the highway and shifting down from fifth to second instead of to fourth. What was that word?! Can’t remember! Nooooo! A silence fills the room as the awkwardness mounts, and by the end of the following few minutes the only way to deal with such shame and loss of face is to commit suicide with a broken spoon.

Such tragedy could have been averted if, instead of agonizing over the word tsukue, the speaker simply decided to fake it and use Japanese pronunciation for the word in question: teeburu. Communication would have been achieved, if a little bit of a challenge, but if you’re taking as much effort to speak their language as you are, they can be fairly expected to share at least a little bit of the effort.

The Japanese educational system is hardly the best when it comes to, as it turns out, most things (it tends to boil down to “here is a list of facts on which I will test you on this given date, after which you can essentially forget them all”), and many foreigners are surprised to find out that English is compulsory for a number of years in Japanese schools. As it turns out, English is treated just like any other subject, and is similarly subject to such cram-and-regurgitate short-term learning as any other subject, but there is enough English used in common Japanese conversation and pop culture that indeed, the problem turns out to be not one of vocabulary but one of sound.

The general consensus among linguists is that after the age of three or four or so, humans stop hearing sounds that don’t occur in their native language, or at least they stop hearing them easily. This is particularly problematic for the Japanese, with their five vowel and fourteen consonant sounds (none of which are actually equivalent to the common L and R of English).

The practical upshot of it all is that the Japanese generally can understand at least simple English, but only so long as it is pronounced like a Japanese person is saying it. Yes, it means adding unnatural U sounds and cramming L and R together into what is essentially the Spanish R, but it’s effective enough that it’s actually plausible to expect a reasonably urban Japanese person to have at least a simple conversation in English so long as it’s pronounced so they can understand it.

Of course, this has the inherent downside that, the better one’s Japanese accent gets, the better their grasp of the language itself, and consequently the need to use English nearly as much deteriorates.

I certainly hope that anyone with plans to come to Japan finds all of this to be of at least some use – it’s taken a while to compile it, and I run the risk of perhaps shocking some through, to be perfectly fair, blatant honesty. So long as I prevent one person from an unpleasant surprise, though, I’ve done my job.

Religion in Japan

Hirakata, Osaka | Fall, 2005 | 20 years old

It’s really quite interesting to look at Japan’s various religious structures. For that matter, it’s actually rather interesting to take a step back and take a quick look at Japan’s religions. In a nutshell, the two major religious influences upon the average Japanese life are Shinto, an indigenous animistic spirituality (not really an organized religion, per se, but rather a general set of beliefs about spirits inhabiting nearly everything), and Buddhism (which arrived via China and Korea, where it picked up all sorts of fun stuff, like deities and hierarchy). Both have influenced each other to some extent, but on the whole the average Japanese person sort of vaguely believes in both in much the same way the average British person is sort of vaguely Protestant Christian.

In fact, much like England, Japan has a large collection of impressive and imposing religious structures, mostly Buddhist temples and pagodas. It is perhaps a bit unfortunate that, much like Europe’s stately cathedrals, the largest of Japan’s remaining temples, such as Kyoto’s Touji, are viewed even by the natives almost exclusively as novelties: somewhere you go to take photos, look at some giant statues in an enormous hall for a little while, take some more pictures perhaps, and then grab a souvenir with a religious meaning attached to it that will be used mainly to adorn a cell phone or dashboard. Once in a while, someone will come and quietly go about their spiritual business on their own, but most of the Japanese people at the larger temples are apparently there primarily to feed the pigeons or because it’s big and pretty.

On the whole, it’s a little disheartening even for someone as un-religious as I am. It’s even more disheartening to realize that, much of the time, at the larger, older temples, laypeople aren’t even allowed into or around certain buildings most of the time, and given that the way that one worships at a Buddhist temple or pagoda is by circumambulating (or walking in a circle around it), it seems akin to a church with no doors. Your average Japanese person has about as much personal attachment to such a structure as your average American has to the Liberty Bell: it’s probably important, but life would certainly go on without it.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw the much smaller temples in Kyoto. Now, my surprise wasn’t at the presence of such a thing, except at first: Japan, as far as I have been able to determine, has literally no zoning laws, which explains a lot of things one sees in this country. Rather, my surprise was at the differences that were almost immediately apparent. Touji and Byoudou-in (the temple on the ten-yen coin) feel more like museums than anything. Beautiful museums, but museums nonetheless.

The nameless little temple in Kyoto’s shopping district on Sanjou (“3rd Avenue,” more or less) gave an overwhelming and instant impression of being far more “lived in.” Outside was a little fountain to wash your hands and mouth at, as well as a stone pillar dedicating the temple. Additionally, you could purchase your fortune for a hundred yen from a simple vending machine. There were also other little shrines, such as one to Jizo, the Buddhist deity who protects those condemned to Hell, but popularly associated with dead children (who are condemned for the grief they cause their parents). Jizo’s shrine itself was a touchingly simple affair: a bibbed monk statue with a candle and a collection of small toys and candies being offered to the spirits of the deceased children that Jizo is sworn to protect.

Inside the comparatively modest, yet still impressive temple, the monks in attendance were drumming and burning incense and, though these things were important to them, they certainly had no qualms about outsiders standing by the entrance and watching and, in the case of the Japanese observers, taking pictures. Afterward, they put everything away and walked to the back, all the while chatting casually with each other. There was of course a small shop inside the temple, as always, where you could buy small charms and such to bring you good luck.

What struck me most, however, aside from how casual all involved seemed to be about their religion, was the outside of the building itself. Much like the Jizo shrine, the significant impacts came from the quietly understated evidence of others’ lives and what is important to people. The outside of the building, at least the front wall, was practically covered with fans and small wooden signs with people’s hopes and dreams written on them in black marker in the belief that, as the writing fades over time, the gods will hear their prayers.

One implores the gods to help make it to the Kansai tournament again this year, though what the tournament is in is never established. Quite a few people want to be good at ballet, piano, or violin, and one wants to be better at expressing him-/herself. The interesting thing is that the fans and signs are almost invariably semi-anonymous, with a pseudonym or the date occasionally written in the bottom corner. There was one, though, that had a message we can all relate to, and I will remember it for the rest of my life:

“One more chance, please. I want to do it right next time.”

Differences

Hirakata, Osaka | Fall, 2005 | 20 years old

One of the oddest things about Japan is that, despite its reputation for subtlety and “sameness,” the differences between living here and living in, for example, the United States can’t help but simply jump out at you and assert their existence. In other words, Japan only seems big on being the same when it concerns “being the same as other parts of Japan.” In other words, there’s a lot out there to prepare for when it comes to coming to Japan.

Because all of my experience with living in general has taken place in the United States, I will be writing this from a somewhat limited perspective. I would apologize in advance, but I have no particularly compelling reason to.

The left side of the road. Needless to say, the Japanese drive on, from an American perspective, the wrong side of the road. Australians, on the other hand, see nothing wrong with what appears to be a perfectly reasonable way to go about getting from point A to point B without experiencing any excessive number of head-on collisions.

The weather. Mark Twain once said, about New England’s weather, that if you didn’t like it you could wait a few minutes. Now, I can’t speak for the rest of Japan nor the rest of the year, but the Kansai region at the end of Summer is primarily hot and humid with a few unseasonably less-hot days, though the humidity makes a point of kicking in an extra bit to balance things out.

Now, oftentimes one will see the Japanese lugging umbrellas here and there on what appear to be perfectly reasonably clear days, and not just because they want the shade to keep from getting tans. No, the reason for this is twofold. First, in Japan it doesn’t simply rain. It either drizzles annoyingly or, more commonly when it does rain, comes down without a hint of mercy. Second, and this is far more important, in Japan the weather report almost inevitably ends with “with a chance of rain,” and if it doesn’t, then it’s still a pretty safe assumption that it should be there:

Cloudy, with a chance of rain.
Sunny, with a chance of rain.
Thunderstorms, snow, and hail, with a chance of rain.

Japanese weather isn’t quite as fickle as parts of the United States, but its tendencies can leave someone wishing for any sort of change at all simply because it would almost inevitably be an improvement.

Mayonnaise. Clearly, Japan’s favorite condiment after soy sauce (if it’s even less popular than soy sauce – it could be a tie, or perhaps soy sauce would be second). Mayonnaise first found its popularity back in the eighteenth century or so, back when Portuguese merchants first visited. However, unlike words like “tabako” or “tempura,” the Japanese never managed to fully assimilate the word, leading to its image of “foreignness” and subsequent prohibition by Imperial decree until the 1860s and the re-opening of Japan to the outside world at large. Interestingly enough, none of this is widely known, and this is primarily because I just made it all up, but the fact of the matter is that mayonnaise is everywhere in Japan. For those who don’t like the stuff (and just looking at it tends to make me want to gag), it’s kind of a challenge, but for those who do it’s generally well-received – I’m told it’s rather sweeter than other countries’ and that it’s just more palatable overall. On the upside, it’s available in those ubiquitous soft plastic squeeze bottles. Everywhere.

Smoking. Everyone smokes, or at least it seems that way compared to America. Restaurants sometimes have non-smoking sections, but it’s about as effective as a no-peeing section in a swimming pool. Everyone’s constantly worrying about dieting, but apparently nobody ever thinks, “boy, you know what would be really good for my health? Not smoking.”

Vending machines. Everyone’s heard all about the vending machines in Japan. They have such crazy things! Big bags of rice! Pornography (which is available everywhere else, too)! A UFO Catcher/crane game with live lobsters! What funny people!

Well, the truth of the matter is that, yes, drink vending machines are in fact everywhere: recent figures put the number at over one and a half million nationwide, and though the number means little on its own, if you were to lay each of them end to end, starting in New York, you would need back surgery by the time you were done. It’s gotten to the point where, after living in Japan for more than a week or two, not being able to find a drink vending machine in the immediate vicinity can cause mild panic.

As for other vending machines, there are certainly the niftier ones, like the Pocky and ice cream machines found in every arcade, no matter how small, and the ones with instant ramen cups for sale that provide you with hot water and chopsticks. However, these are generally the exceptions, rather than the rule. It’s safe to estimate at least 90% of the vending machines your average person will see in an average week will be for drinks, alcoholic or not (though the alcohol and tobacco vending machines close at 11:00 PM).

What’s also interesting to note is that the ATMs have hours as well, though they also are just generally nicer than I was used to – they don’t give you your cash until you’ve taken your card (and balance book, if you put it in for printing of your new balance), and it can count cash for deposits without needing an envelope.

What else is very interesting to note…

Isolation. …is that vending machines almost invariably cost more than just walking inside and dealing with someone running a cash register, almost in direct opposition to what one would be used to in the United States (“Why are you buying this in here? It’s a quarter less out front in the vending machine, and you don’t have to pay tax”). It’s really quite an interesting phenomenon, to tell the truth: for someone who’s used to the concept of approaching and being approached by random strangers, it’s really weird to live somewhere where anything beyond “where is ___?” makes people uncomfortable.

I’ve read about the phenomenon, and the general consensus boils down to a matter of the “in-group/out-group” distinctions, but it’s really disquieting to see it in action – it’s literally as though those who are not part of your group aren’t even people. Sure, there are signs on the subways requesting that people give up their seats for those just generally poorly equipped to stand for long periods. However, there are jokes among the Japanese that the way you can tell who’s an American of Asian descent is by seeing who actually offers their seat to someone with a broken leg or a pregnancy.

And of course, while there are jokes about Japan’s crime rate (“Why is crime so low in Japan?” “Because it’s illegal.”), it really seems to boil down to a general sense of indifference among the people. “It’s not my problem” seems to be the prevailing mindset, which has its benefits, like being able to safely leave your bike sitting somewhere unlocked for a week, but it has its drawbacks, like litter never being picked up.

The fact of the matter, however, is that it’s really not my position to criticize the scenario as I see it. That is, perhaps regrettably, one of the major things about learning about a new culture from the inside. Things have worked just fine for them, at least as far as they seem to be concerned, for years and years. From an American perspective, Japan is rather strange at times, but I’m certain that from their perspective I’m ill-mannered and loud and arrogant and so forth. The problem is that, in the end, there’s really no culturally neutral position to look at things from.

Delicious!

Hirakata, Osaka | Summer, 2005 | 20 years old

One of the things peculiar to studying in Japan is the fact that it’s one of the very few nations that has what could legitimately be called “raving fans.” There are people doing the study abroad program here for the main purpose of finding the ever-elusive Japanese Girlfriend, as though simply pining away at the concept will suddenly make them appealing to the local ladies. There are far, far too many people here who will put on Animax, the all-animation channel on cable or satellite or whatever, and simply watch whatever they have scheduled for the given time frame. And, for that matter, I’m sure there are students here who love the idea that the drinking age is only twenty, and that going out drinking on a Monday night isn’t so much “alcoholic” as it is “sociable.”

Needless to say, not having any real interest in any of the above activities, it’s kind of easy to feel a bit out of place here. That isn’t to say that there aren’t other students here whose idea of an incredible Saturday consists of “cheap ramen, cheap karaoke, and the arcade,” and it is those students who make my comparatively down-to-earth lifestyle here tolerable and, indeed, fun.

In addition to the fact that I haven’t cared much about Japanese cartoons or comics for years, I have another shocking confession to make: I don’t really like seafood that much. In a country that consists mostly of island with some ocean thrown in, this can be something of a very bad move. As a result, I don’t eat a whole lot of sushi, for example, or for that matter anything generally considered to be “high cuisine.”

As it turns out, however, this may be one of the best things to have happened to me when it comes to living on a relatively tight budget as a college student, because it turns out that Japan has some of the best damn cheap, quick food in the world. There is a place right by campus that offers fresh ramen (well, the noodles are pre-prepared and come in a bag, but it’s different from the flash-fried instant type we’re all so familiar with), and the 99-yen shop offers delicious inari sushi for, of course, about a hundred yen once you factor in tax. Likewise, every convenience store sells unfathomably delicious nikuman-based filled steamed buns, with anything from pork and mixed vegetables in them to curry to what ostensibly passes as “pizza-like.” Udon and soba shops are plentiful, offering everything from zaru udon/soba (cold noodles with dipping sauce) to gyuuniku shigure udon, a noodle soup with cooked thinly sliced beef and ginger that attains heretofore unprecedented levels of delicious.

Between the cheap noodles and cheap entry-level sushi and the whatever-we-can-put-in-a-steamed-bun-man rolls everywhere, it’s really pretty easy to find yourself addicted to Japanese fast food, and I will be the first to say that I’m rather frustrated at the thought that all of the delicious and cheap meals I can find around here and have already begun to take for granted are all but unheard of in the US, where Japanese restaurants are seemingly limited to expensive sushi places and places where you can get a steak twice the size of anything you’d ever see in Japan itself.

In other words, if I miss one thing about Japan, it’ll be the food I can’t get back home. I’m never going back to instant ramen.

Arrival

Hirakata, Osaka | Summer, 2005 | 20 years old

The first thing you’re surprised by when you arrive in Japan is how little surprises you. Yes, perhaps it’s made simpler by the fact that most of us who wind up studying here have done our share of reading up before coming, but it seems more likely that you have giant signs everywhere that have English writing on them.

Of course, that sensation fades pretty quickly once you get to where you’re going, though. In fact, it’s quite impressive to note the rapidity of the change from “nothing’s particularly odd” to “wow, I’m definitely not home anymore.” It comes somewhere around when you notice that the English writing is only there for effect and that you have to literally guess at the contents of certain stores.

And so, like any good traveler, I’ve been doing my share of exploring the town on foot, and like any good traveler, the main sensation I’ve experienced since I arrived has been “lost.” Not “lost” in the sense of “awash in a sea of kanji you’ve been meaning to study for a while.” No, this is the type of lost where you could swear the roads have been shifting around behind you as you walk around town, snickering quietly to themselves and rerouting the time/space continuum such that you eventually accidentally wind up getting back from being lost by arriving home from the exact opposite direction that you left toward. More savvy travelers may want to consider purchasing a bicycle, which will allow them to become lost much more quickly and efficiently.

The other major shock, of course, is the first time you encounter the Lurking Horrors of the Japanese Toilet. Maybe it’s just a guy thing, but no matter how much preparation you try to provide yourself, no matter how many pictures you see, no matter how much you read, your first reaction to the Lurking Horrors will invariably be along the lines of “hey, some bonehead installed the urinal in the floor. Punishments are in order!” The trick to using them is not to utilize a specific technique, but rather to get in and out as quickly as humanly possible. A diet rich in fiber is highly beneficial when it comes to speed.

What comes as a pleasant surprise, on the other hand, is how, though everyone is always talking about how face-gougingly high prices are in Japan, things aren’t entirely unreasonable. Now, perhaps it’s simply a matter of my not having truly internalized the concept of “Yen=money,” but prices aren’t quite as outrageous as I’d been led to believe: no fifteen-dollar tubes of toothpaste, but to be fair fruit is often quite pricey, as is entertainment in general. The recent trend of hundred- and 99-yen shops is extremely welcome, particularly for a college student on a shoestring budget: you can get pretty much anything you need there, from chopsticks to neckties to whole fresh pineapples. You can also get your choice of sports drink, available in “Pocari Sweat,” “Aquarius,” “Gatorade,” and no-name brand, all of which look and taste nearly identical, almost like grapefruit-ade.

It’s been a surreal week, to be certain. As a friend of mine and I noted earlier today, where else but Japan would you hear, on a grocery store’s canned music rotation, what sounded like the B-52’s performing a cover of the theme song from The Flintstones?

Preparations

Lansdale, PA | Summer, 2005 | 20 years old

Whoever first noticed that ignorance was bliss really hit it on the head. It’s more than a little stressful to prepare for life in a foreign country, and it’s compounded by research. The thing about Japan in particular is that it is almost entirely like the United States in virtually no way at all.

A little research shows that a cell phone purchased in the US will have no chance of working in Japan. A little more reveals that my laptop’s power adapter with the grounding pin (the third prong on the bottom) won’t fit into Japanese outlets, though Osaka does at least run on 60Hz electricity like I’m used to. Paper money is differently-sized and won’t fit nicely into my wallet. Coins are plentiful, though thankfully smaller and lighter than American ones. CDs are brutally expensive, as are movie tickets, food, gasoline, and water.

In fact, about the only elements of my current lifestyle that will be able to survive the transition intact are:

  1. My beloved AA batteries, though they will be named LR6 in a calculated attempt to gradually undermine the sanity of foreigners.
  2. My toothbrush.

It’s ridiculous, really, and utterly frustrating. Even completely mundane things in my life are starting to fall into this trap. Just the other day, for example, I went shopping for a new pair of shoes.

Now, shopping for shoes isn’t the greatest of experiences for me in the best of cases. I wear something like a US size 12-wide, which isn’t exactly a breeze to track down. When I do find a pair that actually fits, they tend of course to look like something that was either designed by a blind artist who hated the world, or stolen from a bowling alley. In order to make things more difficult for me, I now had to shop for shoes that, in addition to fitting in the first place and not making me look like some sort of discount clown, were also compatible with the Japanese way of life. They had to be good walking shoes, since I won’t be driving much for the next year, but they also have to be able to slide off easily when I need to, by conservative estimate approximately forty thousand times per day.

Luckily, I found a pair of Rockports for a decent price that were wide enough and about a size too long (I’ve already accidentally stepped out of one of them while running), which means that I will likely have to spend much of the next year or so developing the so-called Asian Shuffle simply in order to keep my shoes on.

I’m sure it’ll hit me sooner or later that I only have a week and a half left in the United States until May.

Intro

Lansdale, PA | Summer, 2005 | 20 years old

Hi there, folks. My name is Greg, and I have a confession to make: I am a recovering Japanoholic. Back in my middle school days, I, like many other nerdy folks, absolutely idolized that little archipelago, with the conviction that Japanese culture and media could simply do no wrong. Music, movies, television programs (as long as they were animated, of course). You name it, I was all over it like a college student on a combination-all-you-can-eat-buffet-and-coin-laundry-service that sells very cheap beer.

It got pretty bad, too. It all really kicked in right around the age of fourteen, which is of course when we all suddenly became the world’s foremost authority on everything ever. In other words, I got the whole “elitism” thing down pat, regardless of whether it was even appropriate given the situation or my knowledge. Boy, it sure was fun arguing the relative merits of subtitles versus dubbing in middle school when nobody involved in the debate knew more than about a dozen catchphrases of the source language! Now we use the Internet for such things, and as we all know, the world is a better place for it.

Then, about two years ago (either toward the end of 12th grade or the beginning of my freshman year), I just up and decided, “You know what? I don’t like Japan anymore.” Now, I’ll grant that it didn’t get nearly as extreme nor excessive as the reactions that others I knew went through (which, for the sake of good taste, I won’t be repeating here), but I became privy to the world of grown-ups who had been big into Japan at some point. As it turns out, study of Japan tends to take three phases:

Infatuation. Everything about it is fabulous. The workers? They’re dedicated! The food? It’s beautiful! The exposed power lines everywhere? I didn’t know about them! It was all neon signs and Fuji as far as I was concerned.

Rejection. Suddenly, you hate everything about it. You begin to describe your past interest unkindly, along the lines of “If Japan were a girl, I was interested in her mainly for her body.” You find out facts like “Japan was the world’s #1 creditor in 1990, but is now the world’s #1 debtor,” and you become disillusioned, even though you don’t bother to find out what standards are being employed to determine this ranking. You find out about the power lines, too, and how Japan’s the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t bury them. Japanese TV turns out to suck 90% of the time, and it turns out that there really is only so much animated material one can watch without losing their mind.

Realism. Gradually, it dawns on some people that “the more you learn about Japan, the less you like it” only applies to learning about the bad things which they try to keep under wraps. You come to realize that, hey, it’s just another country, and they’re just as weird as anyone else, or perhaps a little weirder. Most importantly, they’re still people. Japanese TV still sucks, but that’s okay, because American TV does too, at least for the most part.

I like to think that I’m well into the third stage by this point, and, though I do know more on both the “good” and “bad” sides of the equation than most people do, I like to hope that I’ll be able to give it the fair chance it deserves.

That said, it’s tough to be fair, because every time you read a guidebook about Japan, you learn completely different things, all colored by the various authors’ experiences. As much as I’d like to avoid the usual boring guidebook stuff (“Visible half a kilometer south from the town’s post office is the preserved ashen remains of the workshop of Hiroshi Tanaka, widely credited with the development of the three-pronged raised geta sandal, which was not successful due to its break with tradition”) and mistakes rookies tend to make when dealing with the Japanese (like the infamous “They’re all so very friendly and helpful!”) and writing untold scads about the “OH THAT’S SO CULTURAL!” activities like, say, ikebana, sumo, and eating rice at every meal, I’m going to be honest and admit that my experiences with Japan will be just as subtly colored by experience as anyone else’s, but I’d like to pretend I’m at least a slightly better judge of what is and isn’t interesting to read.

Yes, there will probably be the occasional bit of generic guide-book activities peppering my experiences (I rather imagine that living in Japan without being exposed to the Sumo world while it’s in season is like living in America and not seeing angry motorists), but I’d much rather write about the little everyday things, like the prevalence of vending machines, or made-in-Japan English phrases (technically known as Wasei Eigo). Maybe I’m the only one, but I always found things like that to be far more interesting to read about than, say, the history of bonito fish flakes and their many uses, as well as seeming far more practical when it comes to actually living somewhere.

So stay tuned for more! Hopefully I won’t scare anyone off from the idea of studying in Japan. That said, my flight to Kansai International Airport leaves August 19th, and I arrive at Kansai Gaidai in Hirakata, Osaka on the 20th. There’s still more left to say about the preparations, but still… wish me luck.