5 Favorite Things About Japan

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It’s no secret that Japan is one of my favorite places. Even though I’ve only lived there for a short time as a student and visited for a week or a month at a time since that, every time I plan a trip I end up visiting Japan for the umpteenth time rather than visiting a country I’ve never been to before (although there are a lot of countries I haven’t visited yet).

So what is so great about Japan? I’ve met many people who have visited Japan, and when I ask them what their favorite thing about Japan is, I get just as many different answers. Here I’ve compiled a list of favorites, including both my experiences and those of people I know.

  1. Public Transportation
Train doors

Riding on the train – photo by kei

In the US you can’t get anywhere easily without a car. And streets, residences, and markets are laid out such that it’s not often feasible to just walk to the super market – it’s too far or too perilous to reach on foot. When you do use public transportation it can be grimy (think NY subways) or costly (taxi fares to downtown), or just really slow (how long do I have to wait for a bus?).

In Japan, public transportation is efficient, frequent, and clean. You can be sure that the train will be on time down to the minute – yes, 14:17 means that it will arrive at 2:17 PM on the dot – barring a disaster or accident, of course. If your apartment is far from the train station or eki 駅 you can ride your bike or take the bus to the station, then take the train to your destination. Taxis can be expensive, but the bus is often an inexpensive option, and you can look up bus or train schedules on your smart phone. No wifi? Find a 7/11 convenience store and you can connect to their 7-SPOT wifi. You can use the same ID and password for the Tokyo Metro wifi as well.

2. Public Toilets

Separate toilet rooms keep things clean – photo by kei

Toilets in Japan are something you need to experience yourself to truly understand and appreciate. Before I went to Japan, I wondered what the big deal about oto-hime and bidet was, but once I spent some time there I understood why people write articles about Japanese toilets. Japanese toilets have lots of bells and whistles, including seat warmers, buttons that emit flushing sounds, and a variety of bidet settings. At first the array of buttons is intimidating, but once you figure out what each button does, you will wonder how you ever lived without the button that plays a charming little tune.

Public toilets in Japan often contain these high-tech toilets. Some even have lids that open automatically when you approach. You often find the high-tech Western-style toilets in shopping centers and super markets. However, there are still Japanese-style toilets interspersed with the high-tech toilets in stores and train stations. Many parks have both low-tech Western-style toilets and Japanese-style toilets, or just Japanese toilets. These are the hole-in-the-ground type, which can be an adjustment for many Westerners, but when you need to go they are just as welcome as the Western-style toilets.

The abundance of public toilets available in Japan is quite helpful when you are exploring a new place, as you are usually not far from a public toilet. Even when I climbed Mt. Fuji there were public toilets available! (Due to the difficulty of accessing and cleaning the loo at 3000+ meters altitude, they request a small donation, and although this is honor-based, I am sure most visitors pay the small donation.) Public toilets in Japan are also incredibly clean. A public toilet in a park in the US can be pretty disgusting, but I’ve never been to a public toilet in Japan that I literally couldn’t use because someone mucked it up.

3. Fast Food

The number one thing that people comment on about their trip to Japan is the food. Even people who don’t eat sushi find the food to be delicious. Japan indeed does dining well, from traditional favorites to international cuisine, the food is always well made but at reasonable prices. The same is true for fast food in Japan. Whether it’s the internationally famous McDonald’s or Japan-based Mos Burger, fast food just seems better in Japan. Aside from Western hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Japanese udon and beef bowls count among the ranks of fast foods. The food choices are more varied and some of the places seem healthier than your typical fast food joints. Some of the fast food restaurants in Japan don’t even seem like fast food, and so sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking you’re eating healthier (although I haven’t checked the nutrition values).

You can even pick up frozen or refrigerated meals at the convenience store that taste almost fresh after you heat them up in the microwave. I’ve had 7/11 fish heated up in a microwave that tastes like it was freshly cooked. It’s hard to go back to US frozen food after that experience…

4. Mascot Characters

Japan essentially has the market cornered on cute. Cute accessories, cute characters, even cute food (like kyara-ben キャラ弁). That’s why Hello Kitty has endured worldwide for over 40 years and why I always stop at the capsule vending machines to get a new character key chain in game centers. One of my favorite Japanese things is mascot characters.

Japan has a mascot for everything – TV stations, stores, even every prefecture and city has its own mascot character. You may be familiar with the TV station NHK’s Domo-kun (どーもくん), the brown furry square monster, or Kumamon (くまモン), the black bear that is the representative of Kumamoto Prefecture. The mascot characters are my favorite cute characters, and I wouldn’t mind having a mascot for everything in my life. You can even meet the mascot characters if you get lucky. City mascots appear at festivals and other events, and store mascots sometimes wander about while you shop.

5. Sakura

Sakura

Sakura blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen – photo by kei

Spring is my favorite season, next to summer, and with spring comes cherry blossoms or sakura 桜, which bloom for a very short time across Japan. When it just begins to warm up, but before the rain falls, cherry blossoms bloom for a couple of weeks. The light pink blossoms all bloom at the same time, and then begin to fall or are washed away by the rain. The ephemeral nature of the cherry blossoms is very poetic, and has begun a primary symbol in Japanese culture.

When the cherry blossoms bloom, people come out for dates or in groups to view the cherry blossoms, taste sakura-inspired snacks and drinks, and consume alcohol in the parks. The warmer weather that accompanies the blooms and the short viewing period inspire crowds to congregate outdoors. Celebrating the coming spring and viewing the beautiful blossoms (hanami 花見) creates an atmosphere that is unique to these blooms.

Other seasonal events that bring out the crowds in Japan are the changing leaves in the fall, and the illuminations (seasonal lights) in the winter. The beach is a cool relief from the humidity of summer. Any season that you visit Japan offers specialty events and delicacies, and each offers a unique experience!

What are your favorite things about Japan? Do you agree with my list? What about your home country? Let me know in the comments!

The Japanese Emperor – and the end of the Heisei?

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The Japanese emperor (tennou 天皇) is said to be descended directly from the sun goddess Amaterasu, and today represents the Japanese constitutional monarchy. With such a long lineage filled with time-honored customs, and tied to modern Japan through the constitution, there seems to be little room for grand changes.

Yet at the end of 2018 a major change may occur in the imperial system.

Customarily, the Japanese emperor serves as the imperial head of Japan for the duration of his natural life. Succession occurs with his death, and the title of emperor is passed on to his first-born son. However, at the end of 2018, Emperor Akihito may step down and pass on his title. This would be the first time that the title would be passed on while the present emperor, or kinjyoutennou 今上天皇, was still living.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why pass on the title?

There are a number of reasons why passing on the title, or abdicating, during his lifetime would serve both the emperor and the country as a whole. In the present day where health care is better than it’s ever been and people are living many years longer than their ancestors, the emperor may indeed live for many more years. As the emperor, at the age of 83, he must work 25 days out of the month (I work 21-22 days out of the month). I imagine that this is quite tiring!

Also, as Japan is preparing for the 2020 Olympic games, the emperor will be expected to serve as a symbol for the country. He will need to make public appearances, and if he unexpectedly falls ill during the games, this might dampen the spirits of the host country.

These are some reasons which may be behind the decision for early abdication by the emperor.

Imperial Palace

The Imperial residence buildings in Tokyo – photo by kei

Why is this decision so monumental?

The early abdication of an emperor is an event that has never occurred since the institution of Japan’s national constitution in 1947. In fact, as I understand it, the language even prevents the early abdication (likely as a safeguard against the emperor’s title being removed). Thus, to allow for this unprecedented circumstance, the Japanese constitution itself must be amended.

A committee took an initial vote on whether the emperor should be allowed to abdicate, and while the decision has not been finalized, it seems that the committee was favorable to allowing the emperor to go through with this. The change might not be permanent, though, as the government seems to favor only allowing the abdication for Emperor Akihito, rather than applying it to all succeeding emperors.

Still, Emperor Akihito may step down at the end of 2018, and pass down his title to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito (who is 56), on the first of January 2019. This would bring the Heisei 平成 era to an end at 30 years, and begin the new era – which may be named as early as this year.

How do you think the Japanese government should handle this decision? Allow him to abdicate? Make it a permanent rule? Do you think this is a good decision for Japan? Let me know in the comments!

Coming of Age Day in Japan 成人の日

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In Japan, the second Monday of January marks the Coming of Age Day or Seijin no Hi 成人の日. On this day, anyone who turns 20 between April 1st of the previous year (2016) and April 1st of the current year (2017) officially becomes an adult in the eyes of Japanese society.

In addition to the new adults being able to vote, smoke, and drink in Japan, each ward holds a ceremony called seijin-shiki 成人式 to officially introduce the newly minted adults. Women wear special kimono with long sleeves, called furisode, and often with fur trim since it’s still winter. These are usually rented because they are quite expensive. Men can wear hakata, or traditional baggy pants, but most often they wear suits with ties.

Usually friends gather after the ceremony and celebrate at an izakaya or Japanese pub, at karaoke, or even in parks (but usually it’s pretty cold for this). Even if they haven’t officially reached 20 on the day of the ceremony, Japanese izakaya won’t card on this day.

Many new adults go to the shrine after the ceremony, to offer prayers for their future. Since the Coming of Age Day is close to the New Year, many people are still making their first trips to the shrines and it can be quite crowded!

Hasedera Temple, Kamakura

In recent years, participation in the Coming of Age Day ceremonies has declined. Some people say that not as many people are participating as they used to, and some people say that there just aren’t as many young people are there used to be (the aging society problem of Japan). While I don’t know the reason why participation is down, I know that my friends – in past years as well as this year – are very eager to participate!

What kind of celebrations does your country have for coming of age? Let me know in the comments!

New Year in Japan

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The  New Year in Japan is probably the most important holiday of the year. Schools and businesses close for the year-end holiday 年末年始 nen matsu nen sho and many people return to their hometowns to visit family.

New Year's kadomatsu 門松

In Japan, the New Year holiday is the time for family, while Christmas in Japan is a time for couples. This is the opposite in the US, as Christmas is the time when people gather with their extended families and usually is the most important holiday. New Years for Americans is instead a time for partying as a couple or with groups of friends.

The result of the New Year’s holiday being such an important, family-oriented holiday is that shops and tourist attractions close early, often for several days before and after the New Year. If you are an employee this is great, but if you’re a tourist, you might be frustrated. With restaurants, souvenir shops, and museums closing, you might not be able to cross some things off your bucket list. Banks and ATMs also close, so be prepared with plenty of cash before the New Year’s holidays begin. You also might find more crowds when traveling to and from big cities during this time.

Even if normal shops and activities shut down for a few days, there are still plenty of things to do during this time of year!

Sensouji (shrine) at Asakusa

New Year’s Shrine Visit – Hatsumode 初詣

On New Year’s morning, often just after midnight, millions of Japanese people flock to shrines (jinja 神社) or temples (otera お寺) to perform their first visit or hatsumoude 初詣. If you are in Japan over the New Year, this is an event that I would recommend trying at least once. Unless you hate long lines and crowds. If you are willing to suffer a little bit queuing up in the cold winter air for a truly Japanese experience, then I would make sure to try a New Year’s shrine visit.

The festivities begin on January 1st as the year turns, where the temple bells are rung 108 times (to chase away bad fortune). At the larger shrines and temples there are food stands. You can also buy lucky charms, or get your fortune (omikuji おみくじ) in kanji characters.

Shrine wishes at Fuji Sengen Shrine in Yamanashi

You can expect to line up for over an hour at the most popular shrines and temples, and at the end of the waiting you reach the main offering hall where you can offer a prayer for the New Year. Major train lines run overnight as the year turns to accommodate the huge crowds of people, but be prepared to be packed into the trains like sushi!

If the biggest crowds and longest lines scare you off, you can perform your hatsumode after January 1st, for at least a week at the major shrines.

Waiting for hatsumode at Meiji Jingu

Waiting for hatsumode 初詣 at Meiji Jingu – photo by kei

 

New Year’s Sumo Entry Ceremony

In 2015, I went to the Meiji Jingu Shrine 明治神宮 with my then-fiance for our hatsumode. I was surprised to find out that we were there on the same day as the Yokozuna Deizuri 横綱手数入り, or the sumo ring-entering ritual. I’m not particularly a sumo fan, but it’s pretty impressive to see these athletes in person!

Emperor’s New Year Greeting

On January 2nd, the Emperor of Japan makes a public appearance at the Tokyo Imperial Palace or Koukyo 皇居. The only other public appearance the Emperor makes is on his birthday, December 23rd. On the 2nd, the inner palace grounds are open to the public and the Emperor and his family appear on a protected balcony to wave and give short speeches.

 

 

Tokyo Imperial Palace, Koukyo 皇居

Tokyo Imperial Palace, Koukyo 皇居 – photo by kei

 

New Year’s Sales

Once the New Year’s family gatherings are over, the stores open back up and greet the new year with huge sales! Stores want to move their stock to make room for new product, and therefore they offer great discounts on many items. This is probably one of my favorite parts of the New Year!

In addition to deep discounts on electronics and clothing, you can buy fukubukuro 福袋 or lucky bags. These range from small, inexpensive bags to large boxes with household goods, depending on the store. People will line up for the best fukubukuro, so get there early if you’re interested in the high-end hauls!

New Year's Sales Haul

New Year’s Traffic Congestion

Since many people get the same New Year’s holidays off, travel becomes very congested during the end of the year. From December 29-31, the mass migration begins and many people leave Tokyo and other big cities to return to their hometowns.

Once the New Year celebrations are over, on January 2-4, these same people return to the big cities, creating travel congestion on the roads, on trains, and at airports. If you plan to travel between Japanese cities or out of the country during these times, be prepared for lots of crowds!

Is New Year’s a big holiday in your country? What would you recommend if I visited your hometown for the New Year? Let me know in the comments!

 

Photo Friday: It’s Not This Time of Year Without… Illumination

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Landmark Tower Yokohama Illumination

Photo Friday Challenge: It’s Not This Time of Year Without… 

This week’s Photo Friday Challenge is perfect for the season – It’s not this time of year without… Illumination! Yesterday I talked about my Christmas wish list of things that remind me of winter in Japan, and today I have narrowed it down to the one thing that I miss most about Christmas in Japan. Illumination イルミネーション consists of Christmas light displays that range from local characters to famous Disney princesses.

Venetian Glass Museum

Santa’s escapades at the Venetian Glass Museum, Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture
– photo by kei

Crowds of people mill around the light displays, taking photos and enjoying the spectacle. Couples on a date, families with children, and spectators of all ages can enjoy the illumination. Despite the cold everyone enjoys the atmosphere of the season. While there are Christmas displays in major American cities too, Japan’s illuminations are a completely different event.

Tokyo Skytree Illumination

Tokyo Skytree Town Illumination – photo by kei

Visiting different illuminations in different cities gives you a small taste of the local culture, show off amazing creativity, and I love to try to visit as many as possible. For example, the Disney princesses are located throughout Tokyo in major shopping centers, etc. So if you visit each of the areas where the princesses are, you can take photos of all of them. I suppose it’s like collecting trading cards or Pokemon!

What completes your holiday season? What about holiday traditions from other countries that you enjoy? Let me know in the comments!

My Japanese Christmas List

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Happy December!

It’s the first day of December, and that has me in the Christmas mood. I was thinking about what I want for Christmas today, and the top thing on my list is a trip to Japan… However, due to financial constraints and job obligations, it looks like two tickets to the island nation will not be under my Christmas tree this year 。゚(゚´Д`゚)゚。

So, instead of taking a trip to the land of the rising sun, I made a list of things that would make my Christmas in America a little more like the holidays in Japan.

Japanese University Christmas Trees

Kotatsu 炬燵 – a small square table with a heater underneath, usually accompanied by a futon 布団 or heavy blanket, used to keep warm in the cold winter months

Kotatsu

You can also put a PC on a kotatsu for hours of gaming under a warm futon ^^;

Mikan みかん – a small orange, in season in the winter, often eaten while seated at a kotatsu

Christmas cake クリスマスケーキ – a sponge cake with cream and strawberries, not too sweet and in a perfect portion for two people, eaten during Christmas in Japan

Illumination イルミネーション – Christmas lights, big and fancy, done in a style special for each different location – I love strolling through light displays everywhere, from the high fashion streets of Ginza to a rural town at the foot of Mt Fuji

Christmas Illumination in Ginza

Christmas Illumination in Ginza

How does your Christmas list compare to mine? Is there a Japanese Christmas tradition that you would add? What about your favorite Christmas tradition from your own country? Let me know in the comments!

Photo Friday: Quest / Mt. Takao

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Mt. Takao

Photo Friday Challenge: Quest

In June, my husband and I hiked Mt. Takao 高尾山 in Hachioji 八王子市, a suburb of Tokyo, Japan. Our quest was to make it to the top of Mt. Takao, and on a hot, humid day just before the official beginning of the rainy season or tsuyu 梅雨, we set off for the summit.

Mt. Takao Wooden Staircase

The humidity pressed down on us as we climbed a series of wooden staircases interspersed by regular hiking trails. We had taken the longest hiking course, which offered the best scenic stops between the walls of green of the forest on the way up. My husband is not as big a fan of hiking as I am, so I’m sure the quest seemed a lot longer to him than it did to me.

View from the Summit of Mt. Takao

When we finally made it to the summit, we found a cloudy view from the top. The humidity pressed down, even at the top, but the occasional cool breeze was very welcome. Even though the early rainy season humidity and clouds blocked most of the view, we had a sense of accomplishment from reaching the summit after all of our efforts. Our quest for the top done, we enjoyed drinks from the high-priced summit vending machines and watched the other people who had just finished their own personal quest.

Shops at Mt. Takao

Then, we headed back down the descent path and enjoyed the small shops at the foot of the mountain before heading back towards the bustle of Tokyo.

What kind of quest have you undertaken recently? What is your favorite part of the journey? Let me know in the comments!