Christmas in Japan

On December 27, 2016, in English, Life in Japan, by 01. Hannah
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So the holiday season is upon us. Christmas has come and gone (unless you celebrate on January 1st) and New Years is just around the corner. I thought I would take the chance to talk about Christmas in Japan.

Having lived in western countries my whole life up until this point, the Japanese concept of Christmas is very strange to me. Adjusting to summer Christmas, with barbecues and outdoor cricket, when I moved to Australia was unusual enough for me, but Japan is a whole other ball game. Like Halloween and Valentines Day it’s one of the foreign holidays Japan has adopted and made its own. For me when I think of Christmas I think of waking up early, getting together with family, either immediate or extended, exchanging presents, eating lots of food and playing games. I think of gingerbread, tinsel, fairy lights, Christmas crackers (Bon-bons) bad jokes and even worse Christmas songs to which I know too many of the lyrics. As you can probably imagine Japan is lacking in a lot of these things that make Christmas, for me at least, feel less Christmassy.

For starters, in Japan Christmas isn’t even a holiday. This isn’t really surprising as Japan isn’t a Christian country and so people don’t really celebrate it here. For those who do it’s a little different. Family Christmas is only celebrated by families with children, people don’t really go home to their parents or their grandparents like I imagine most people do back home. For everyone else it’s a couples’ holiday, people go on dates or spend the day at home with their partner eating fried chicken. And I must admit, I still can’t wrap my head around how fried chicken became a Christmas tradition. I believe it started with an ad campaign KFC had saying that this was the American thing to do on Christmas (which of course, it isn’t). Christmas being a predominantly western holiday Japan must have just taken to this idea. I suppose it must have been subverted from the popular tradition of eating turkey on Christmas Day, but as a foreigner the whole thing is still a strange concept. I feel bad for those working at KFC on Christmas here. They also have Christmas cakes here (not fruit cakes, just normal decorated cakes) but overall traditions regarding food here are nothing like the extravagant feasts people like to prepare in Europe and America (or the barbecues we like to have in Australia).

Christmas in Japan has one thing I haven’t really seen before moving here, illuminations. Overseas you can see many people decorate their houses with Christmas lights throughout December. I remember I always loved going through the local neighbourhoods at night, where almost every house was lit up. Japan does this differently through events called illuminations. Instead of neighbourhoods where people decorate their houses, there are areas, like shopping centres and theme parks, where the entire place is lit up with beautiful light displays. I visited one in early December with my host family and it felt so magical, just like I was a child all over again. For me this is the closest thing to capturing the spirit of Christmas that I almost missed this year.

My experience of Christmas was neither a traditional western or Japanese Christmas. Whilst many of my foreign friends returned to their home country for Christmas, I stayed. A few of my other friends did too so we decided to get together at one of our places so that we could have a Christmas this year and not spend the day alone. We brought food and played games and had fun. I had a lovely day spent with lovely people but something about it all just wasn’t the same. There were things that reminded me of Christmas at home but they made me a little homesick. In the end I’m still glad I got to spend the day with people I care about, even if it didn’t feel entirely like Christmas.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday and that the New Year brings as many wonderful opportunities as this year has brought me.

 

Culture Shocks and Other Surprises

On October 27, 2016, in English, Life in Japan, by 01. Hannah
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For someone who moved to a new country but 3 months ago I feel I am quite well adjusted. I didn’t experience as much of a culture shock as lots of people do. I credit this to the fact that I spent 5 years taking lessons in Japanese language and culture prior to my move. Within the first week I had gotten used to the city, the trains, the food (and eating with chopsticks) and speaking in Japanese (though not well) on a daily basis. It may seem silly but I’m kind of proud of that. But like all new experiences I did have a few surprises along the way which I thought I would share. So here are a bunch of things, small and large, that surprised me since moving here divided into neat little categories for your convenience.

Roads:
Tokyo is a very pedestrian city. There are people walking everywhere and comparatively few cars. In the suburbs you may find that you almost never see cars on certain streets, to the point where you forget they are roads at all and not just really wide footpaths. When a car does come through it can be quite surprising. This is all very new to me, particularly in such a busy city. Apart from the large amount of pedestrians, there are many cyclists on the footpaths and roads also. Often I feel I see more bikes around than people. Almost everyone seems to own a bike here. Not only this but it doesn’t seem to be a legal requirement to wear a helmet like in other countries. Many of the cars on the roads are very square in appearance, like little cardboard boxes on the roads. This is a style of car I have rarely seen in my lifetime before moving and now I see them everywhere. Another thing I have seen before is passengers in the back seats of cars not wearing seat belts. As I’m sure you can guess I was completely shocked by this. I must also add that apart from being obviously extremely dangerous it is completely illegal. I did some research on this and it wasn’t always the case, in fact, only in 2008 was it made a legal requirement for back-seat passengers to wear seat belts. Even so, as it is difficult to enforce there are many people (often children) who still don’t abide by this law.

Food:
Most people know that the Japanese eat raw food and that you can find a bunch of strange food items for sale here. I was expecting that so I wasn’t really surprised by this. There definitely were some things I was surprised by though. For starters, fresh fruit here is very expensive here and almost everyone I’ve spoken to here agrees, including the Japanese, neither my friends or I quite seem to know why though. Anther thing that really surprised me was that with most fruit, people will remove the skin before eating it. This includes everything from apples to places and even grapes. On the topic of grapes, the grapes here taste completely different from the grapes back home. In Australia we have red grapes and green grapes and they taste very similar. In Japan we have large dark coloured grapes called kyohou which taste like red wine. The other type I have seen here are small and round and taste exactly like the grape flavour used in lollies and drinks. I never knew when that flavour came from before as it tastes nothing like the grapes I had tried before. But it’s true, it’s not like strawberry flavour or orange flavour for example. Grape flavour really tastes like these grapes. Other things about food that really surprised me are the abundance of raw egg and things like offal. In Australia offal is around but it isn’t very popular and raw egg in foods is a very foreign concept. Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most is that the Japanese eat gristle. You know, the little pieces of cartilage that we would cut off our meat and avoid. I have seen that served here as its own dish and out of all the weird things I have seen this is the one in particular I cannot fathom. I have tried it but I really don’t understand it at all. Each to their own I suppose.

Health care and emergency services:
Shortly after arriving in Japan, I went to the doctor’s clinic to get a follow up prescription for a medication I was already taking he looked at me strangely and told me that not a single dose existed in the entire country. A medication that my med-student friend assured me is very commonly prescribed. This is perhaps one of the most perplexing things I have experienced as never in my life before this point has a doctor not been able to help me in any way what so ever. This is, of course, was not his fault however it did take me quite by surprise. Another thing different about the health care system is that some pharmacies only sell over-the-counter drugs. If you want to get a prescription filled you have to go to a certain ones. Another thing that surprised me is that the word for hospital (byouin) is used for everything from small clinics to actual hospitals and I honestly wonder how this doesn’t confuse people. It certainly confused me. On the topic of hospitals, I hear sirens all the time. I realise that I live in a big city with a large population but even so, the amount of emergency service vehicles I hear go past still seems to be more than it reasonably should. Despite Tokyo being a very safe city I do sometimes feel concerned about the amount of sirens I hear. Finally, Japan has 2 emergency numbers, 119 for ambulance and firefighters and 110 for police. It’s a small thing but it was still something I did not expect.

Bathrooms:
I had to bring this up because there are some things you need to know if you travel to Japan. Often public bathroom have no soap and/or hand dryers. Because of this it is good to always carry hand sanitiser and a small hand towel with you. Another thing to note, it is something I’m not sure I will ever get used to, is that there are lots of old fashioned toilets in women’s public bathrooms. The ones that are pretty much just holes in the ground. If, like me, using these is not up your alley be careful before you enter a cubicle. All of these things I actually knew about before moving to Japan but I was surprised at how frequent they actually were.

Miscellaneous:
Now for everything else. Firstly, I knew Japan would be convenient but I had no idea how much so (but I’ve already written a full blog on that). Secondly, whilst I expected Japan’s drinking culture I did not expect it’s smoking or gambling culture. In Japan lots of people smoke and it’s still ok to smoke in a lot of public places, including inside buildings. I’ve probably done more passive smoking in the last few months than I have in the past few years prior to moving. If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s cigarettes. In the case of gambling, I see pachinko (Japanese gambling machines) and slot places everywhere. Even some arcades have machines that are essentially gambling games without the name. Other things I was surprised to see, or rather not see, were common household machines such as ovens and clothes dryers. These are apparently are quite uncommon and most people live without them. The rubbish system can take some getting used to as well. Everything is separated between burnables and different types of recyclables, and there are almost no bins in public but the streets are perfectly clean. Perhaps the most surprising thing though is that for a country seemingly concerned with the state of the environment, everything is over-packaged and individually wrapped. You want a piece of fruit? That will be triple wrapped, boxed and placed in a plastic bag for you (unless you are in a super-market where you have to bag your own shopping). Which begs the question. Why? To me this all seems rather unnecessary. Other things I don’t understand include (but are not exclusive to) the amount of women exclusive deals in restaurants, cinemas etc., why the trains stop so early in the night despite the party culture and the fact that the left handed-taboo still exists here.

Un-expect the expected:
My final point is about preconceptions. For example, I was told when taking food from a shared platter it was culturally appropriate to use the reverse end of my chopsticks rather than the end you eat with. When I tried this I was laughed at and quickly corrected. It turns out that is a very strange thing to do here. Another thing I was told was to expect a lot of stares and even for people to ask for pictures because of my foreign appearance. The closest thing I have had to serious pointing or stares was when a child pointed to me and said ‘look mum, it’s kitty’ )as I was wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt). My point is, of course there are some cultural things that you should learn if you ever wish to come to Japan. But don’t make too many assumptions about what is true and what is not. Come here, learn, and form your own conclusions. No matter how well you prepare there will be surprises along the way and that’s half the fun.

 

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon ~Amour Eternal~

On October 24, 2016, in English, Life in Japan, by 01. Hannah
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Manga is often adapted to and from many other mediums, such as anime, light novels, visual novels, video games and, in this case, musicals. Many famous works in these mediums have been adapted to musicals, most notably, Sailor Moon. The Sailor Moon musical franchise consists of 31 installments that have been running since 1993. Last Thursday a friend I went to see the latest release, Amour Eternal, at the AiiA Theatre Tokyo. I am no theatre critic but I shall do my best to comment on the show both subjectively and objectively.

The first thing we did before entering the theatre was hire subtitle glasses. I feel the need to talk about this because the idea of subtitle glasses is just awesome! Although I have seen shows here in Japan without subtitles and mostly understood, the option of 100% comprehension is very appealing. In theory these are perfect but in practice they need some tweaking. Inside each lens is a clear computer screen with the subtitles projected onto them. You could adjust the position and size and language (between Chinese and English) of the subtitles with a small handset. The problem with these lenses is that if the subtitles weren’t placed over a dark area they were very difficult to read, which sometimes made it hard to focus on the acting. Also very occasionally the subtitles weren’t aligned well between the two screens which led to seeing two overlapping images instead of one. I couldn’t tell if this was a calibration issue or if it was because I repositioned the glasses. The weren’t exactly very comfortable either. Overall these are mild complaints and the benefit outweighed the problems I had (and they made me look fabulous). I think it’s a service that should be offered at more shows.

The musical itself was about 3 hours long with a 15 minute interval. The entire cast was played by female actors, including the male and gender ambiguous characters. The story is based off the Dream Arc, the fourth arc in the original manga. It was fairly cliché at a lot of points but enjoyable regardless. The costumes were very bright and colourful and the acting was dramatic and captivating. The special effects weren’t groundbreaking and often didn’t have the desired effect if you weren’t viewing the stage from straight ahead (like my friend and I) but they definitely added to the show. The music was a catchy cross between anime music and stage music. The dancing was energetic and incorporated elements from the anime and manga such as the battle stances and special attacks or each of the Sailor Senshi. The show was by no means a theatrical masterpiece but it was certainly a unique experience and I loved every minute of it! It had a different atmosphere from western musicals and was definitely an enjoyable experience, particularly if you are a big fan of the Sailor Moon franchise. I would highly recommend going to see a Sailor Moon musical if you have any interest at all and the opportunity to do so.

Before the curtains dropped for the final time there was an encore performance of the show’s main number and of ‘Moonlight Densetsu’ for a dose of nostalgia. When the lights came on again after the show I took a moment to look around. The audience was almost entirely comprised of adults (the gender ration was quite even as well). Whilst most people consider Sailor Moon to be for little girls it was nice to see the adults who grew up with Sailor Moon there to appreciate the show. On the way out we passed the actresses who played the Inner Planet Senshi waving, smiling and thanking the audience for coming. After vacating the premises we stopped at the merchandise stall and probably spent way too much money before heading home. I couldn’t have asked for a better night.

Now to quickly summarise by answering all the important questions. Was it overpriced? Probably. Was it cliché? Definitely. Were the subtitle glasses a cool idea? No doubt. We’re they practical? Not quite. Was it the show the best thing I’ve ever seen? By no means. Did I have way too much fun? Yes. Did I lose it when Tuxedo Mask winked at the audience? God yes! Did I spend way too much money on merchandise? Maybe…

And most importantly, despite its flaws would I do it all again next year? Absolutely!

 

Re-learning to Communicate

On October 16, 2016, in English, Life in Japan, by 01. Hannah
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Living in a country where you don’t really know the language well can be hard. It’s something many people can probably relate to. In my case I know enough Japanese to get by but little more than that. I can communicate somewhat effectively but not at all efficiently which leaves me giving explain actions like ‘I’m going to put some things in some bags’ instead of ‘I’m packing’. The majority of what I say becomes over-simplified or over-complicated.

I’m not a complete beginner but I am also far from proficient. In fact, I would say I’m average at best. It’s not being hard on myself, it’s merely the truth. I can say more than ‘hello, my name is…’ and less than being able to express my opinion on Donald Trump as the potential future president of America. As such, I’m stuck in a weird state of constantly only understanding 50% of what’s going on (though some would argue I was already like that). I feel like a child again. I can’t express myself properly and people look at me strangely while I try to explain myself with my limited vocabulary of random words and some strange hand motions. I feel the same frustrations as a child trying to express themselves except, unlike a child, when all other forms of communication fail I cannot resort to breaking down into a sobbing mess. Instead I must pretend I know how to be an adult, be patient, and try again.

All cynicism aside, despite the daily confusion I know I am learning more every day and I just have to do my best. I am here to immerse myself and to study the language as best I can. I know that people are understanding and most the time these issues doesn’t bother me too much. I love living here despite the language barrier and I am constantly learning and growing. Learning a new language is challenging but also extremely rewarding. For me at least, it’s the challenge itself that makes it fun and I welcome it. I know that in the end, being here is definitely worth any struggles I may face.

 

During my summer holidays I spent a week in Kyoto with my friend. On the trip we discovered what is now one of my absolute favourite places, Arashiyama. The kanji in Arashiyama (嵐山) means storm mountain. The river Ōi runs through this beautiful place nestled in the mountains making for some gorgeous scenery. We had only intended to spend a couple of hours there to visit the famous bamboo forest, instead we chose to spend the whole day exploring the local sights. I only wish now we had more time.

imageAfter arriving at the station we walked through a small park and across the bridge towards the bamboo forest. On the way we spotted a small shack and a lot of traditional boats. They were offering inexpensive guided cruises up the river, so of course, we couldn’t say no! A man took the two of us on a private tour up the river in a long wooden boat. We sat on the tatami mat under a small roof as the man steered the boat with a long bamboo pole and told us about the area and its history. The view was beautiful and the experience was amazing. It was more than worth the money we spent.

imageAfter this we walked through a park towards the forest. The man on the boat recommended we go this way rather than taking the roads. It took a little longer but it was a lot nicer. There was a single path winding through the tall bamboo. There were a lot of tourists which was to be expected. It would have been nice if it were a little more peaceful however this did not tarnish it’s beauty. It was an atmospheric little journey in our adventures.

imageThe forest path led us right to the entrance of Tenryuu-ji (meaning sky dragon temple). We spent well over an hour wandering through the gardens and the rooms of the temple and on the way out we passed through the Sky Dragon Hall. Inside the hall were beautiful decorations and artefacts and on the roof was a giant painting of the sky dragon who is said to watch over the temple grounds.

imageOn our way back we stopped by the river to cool off. It was an incredibly hot day so we decided to take a break from our walking and take in the views. The water was only ankle deep so we waded through the shallows. This turned out to be not such a good idea as we were ushered out by the police along with the other tourists. I don’t regret it at all though.

imageOur final stop of the day was to the popular Monkey Park. To get to the park we had to hike up the side of the mountain, which, considering the hot and humid weather, was not fun. Beautiful but not fun. When we reached the top we were greeted by the most stunning view of Kyoto and a troop of sweet (and excitable) Japanese Macaques. Seeing the gorgeous mountain habitat of the monkeys and the view from it was certainly worth the long hike to get there. We stayed for a little while to interact with the monkeys and enjoy the scenery before heading back for the night.

Whilst I got to see most of the main attractions in Arashiyama I would have happily spent days there wandering the little streets and enjoying the views. It is an absolutely stunning area and one of my favourite places in Japan if not the world. I urge you to go if you ever get the opportunity and I hope you will love it as much as I do!