….. or quite possibly doesn’t know, unless they are a Japan specialist.
Japan is an increasingly popular travel destination, especially among older travellers, and will become all the more so as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics draw nearer. I have spent nine years of my life in Japan, working and raising a family there. I feel I got to know the country fairly well. This blog is a shortened version of a presentation I have given numerous times. My objective with it is to provide a fleeting look into what I believe is a uniquely unusual country; one that at first glance might appear quite similar to any modern, developed first world country, but that in reality is quite different in many respects. A similar blog, plus a lot of other information, also appears on my other website: www.japanbnl.com
In this short space, I can’t expect to more than barely scratch the surface, but I do hope I can give you a bit of a feel for the country, which perhaps might whet your appetite to find out more, and to possibly go there yourself, or go a second or third time, and to look beyond the usual images.
For various reasons, Japan is ideally suited as a destination for older travellers: either those more adventurous types who like to plan and travel themselves, or those who prefer travelling as part of a group on a guided tour. Japan can dish up a smorgasbord of delights, and I mean both literally and figuratively; it deserves to be on any older traveller’s list of prospective destinations.
This is in no way a travel guide, but to begin with I’d like to make a few general comments about travel in Japan:
. planning and preparing for a trip to Japan yourself is a feasible and achievable option, with so much now available on the internet, although some places of interest and accommodation don’t have English versions of their websites
. similarly, making your own way around in Japan, as a non-Japanese speaker and reader, can be done, guided by your preparation & research
. however, do not expect English to be spoken anywhere near as widely as in other Asian countries, especially outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, and away from hotel lobbies and obvious tourist destinations, although people will sometimes approach you to offer assistance
. security is never an issue in Japan, you will always feel and be safe, day and night
. Japan is now much cheaper, compared to the West, than it has been over the past 3 decades, particularly food, and there is a vast array of accommodation options to choose from.
I normally commence the presentation with a brief selection of photos that depict stereotypical images of Japan, the kind you might see in travel brochures. I include them at the start because they actually do represent some of the things tourists should see or do in Japan, the emphasis being on temples, gardens, eating, city night scenes, and travel on the Shinkansen. These topics are a fairly representative snapshot of modern Japan, and well worth looking into or partaking of. But mostly it isn’t the Japan I talk about.
1. Bowing It is widely known that the Japanese greet and farewell each other by bowing. They do so when on the phone too. With bowing it is not a case of one size fits all, because the depth and duration of a bow will vary greatly according to who is bowing and to whom. The more polite the bowing person feels the need to be towards the other person, the lower and longer it will be. So in many cases the kind of bow is a sign of respect, the bower acknowledging something in the relationship: the other person’s social status, or some kind of obligation one has to the other. Children are taught from an early age the art of bowing, and when to do so.
2. Covering the mouth As a assign of politeness, the Japanese seem to not like people to see them open-mouthed, such as when eating or laughing, and will quickly raise a hand to cover it at such times. Also, the use of hygienic face masks is quite common, usually indicating the wearer has a cold
3. The entrance (genkan)
Every private residence, whether a house or apartment, has an entrance, called the genkan, that is a lower level than the rest of the premises, and has an easily washable surface, such as tiles. Some commercial premises follow the same practice. All footwear – boots, shoes, sandals – are removed in the entrance and either placed neatly at the inner edge of the lower section, or stored in a shoe cupboard (getabako) at the side. In the past, the entrance was considered to be still the exterior, and visitors might actually enter the doorway, then stand waiting in the entrance, removing their shoes and stepping up only when invited to do so. External footwear is never worn beyond the entrance inside the premises. Slippers will always be provided at a private residence, and these, plus some other moveable furnishings, are changed according to the season – warmer ones in winter, cooler in summer. Slippers are not worn in rooms with tatami matting, or in the toilet room, where there are special plastic toilet slippers, which must not be worn outside the toilet.
Speaking of toilets and excretory functions, that is precisely what nose-blowing is considered to be, so it is never done in the immediate presence of others, and Japanese only use tissues for that purpose. There are some beautiful handkerchiefs in Japan, but they are used mainly just for mopping the brow in summer.
4. Home worship Some homes, of the more religious types of people, possess one or two miniature shrines, about the size of a small cupboard, where they prey and worship on a daily basis. In the Shintō religion, these are called kamidana, (“god-shelf”), and for Buddhists they are butsudan. In them are displayed small favourite household articles and ornaments; photos of deceased family members, plus daily offerings of water, sake and food; green twigs placed at the front offered for blessings on the household. If the family receives a gift they might first place it in this shrine, as a gift to the spirits of lost loved ones.
Kneeling on tatami This is the traditional posture for Japanese people on tatami matting. Since they commence doing this from a young age their legs muscles and knees are accustomed to it, but I can assure you the legs of Westerners are not. You might be prepared, out of politeness, to try it for a short while, but anything much longer than 5 minutes could be problematic.
As recently as the early 1990s, a large proportion of toilets in private residences, and even more so public places, such as department stores and railway stations, were the squat style. But now most homes, and public venues, except perhaps in country districts, have Western style electric toilets. With some the lid raises when the toilet door is opened. A heated seat is the most basic feature they offer, usually added to by a retractable arm bidet function and music, to muffle the sound of bodily functions. The control panel is probably bilingual, with illustrations, but be sure you know what will happen when you press any particular button.
One other thing about toilets. The toilet is always in a room of its own, just large enough to do what is normally done in toilets. The toilet is never in the bathroom. Prior to opening the toilet door and stepping inside, you should remove your slippers. Inside the toilet you will see on the floor before you a pair of plastic slippers, which are intended to be worn just there, in the toilet. Presumably Japanese people obediently put on these slippers, but whether you do or not, well, no-one will really know. But – the key thing is that if you do choose to put them on, you must remove them before stepping outside the toilet. To be caught wearing them elsewhere will undoubtedly elicit a shriek of horror from the first person who sees you wearing them.
6. Gift-giving The practice of gift-giving is huge in Japan, a significant portion of the local economy, and a much-practised custom. There are two major two major gift-giving seasons, in mid-summer (o-chugen) and at year’s end (o-seibo), for the purpose of people with an ongoing obligation to another to give that person a gift – such as to parents, teachers, older male siblings, relatives, and the nakōdo-san – the person who plays the formal role of match-maker or go-between in many marriages.
Prior to the main gift-giving occasions, department stores, supermarkets and specialty stores display packaged goods specially prepared and produced for this purpose, manly suiting Japanese tastes. Apart from that, when people visit each other they usually take a gift: a box of Japanese cakes (okashi), a selection of fruit, or one item of fruit, such as a melon. All items purchased as gifts will be packaged and rapped for giving. This explains the high cost, 10,000 yen and above, for one melon, which has been grown and packaged solely to be bought and given as a gift. The perceived value of the item is added to by the status of where it was purchased, so it will always be given as wrapped by the shop.
When a Japanese woman visits a friend or family member, the gift will be wrapped in a special brightly coloured square cloth (furoshiki) neatly tied at the top. Those visitors to Japan who come in contact with the local populace on a person-to-person basis might receive a gift, and it is worthwhile being in a position to be able to reciprocate, preferably with a locally made item.
One further point to mention that’s worth looking out for: should you purchase something in a department store, or better quality product shop, it can be an interesting experience to watch the shop attendant wrapping the item, in a way you will quickly notice is quite different from many other countries.
7. Packaging The packaging of goods and products in Japan has a very long history, and can be considered to be one of the many artistic pursuits that flowered during the period of the country’s closure. Historically, and still today, packaging is done for one or the other of two purposes, or for both. Firstly, for aesthetic purposes, to enhance the appeal of the item, particularly if intended as a gift. Consequently, gifts will be kept in the external packaging of the store from which they were purchased, to add to the perceived value and cachet of the gift. Secondly, for a more functional or utilitarian purpose, to protect the contents, such as eggs. In many instances, such as cakes and biscuits, the individual wrapping and packaging is often excessive, but that is how the Japanese like to see and receive their merchandise.
8. Vending machines At the core of the prevalence of vending machines throughout urban Japan – ubiquitous is the most appropriate word for them – is the fondness for the Japanese of convenience. As well as many street corners having one or two, at various locations rows or banks of them are sited, as an alternative to a shop. The product most commonly dispensed is canned drinks, most of them hot in winter and cold in summer. Also though can be found:
– canned noodle meals and frozen foods, served hot; French fries; toasted sandwiches, cooked pizza; – bananas; fresh lettuce, growing; pet food, in bulk – Buddhist charms; toy cars; umbrellas; books, new and used; bicycle parts; make-up yourself toys – live crabs, in a plastic container; makeup and skin care products; baby products; – clothing: gloves, undershirts, ties, T-shirts, jeans, socks, shoes, thongs – fresh eggs (most likely locally laid)
And finally, female underwear. This encompasses the first topic of a somewhat seamy or seedy nature I touch on here, namely pre-worn panties. Now, whilst the female residents of most countries find it entirely adequate to purchase their underwear in the usual outlets – clothing shops, department stores, supermarkets – Japanese women seem to like, even need, the convenience of selecting from the occasional vending machine. This reflects a preference for purchasing items of a personal or intimate nature away from public gaze. A Japanese lady is likely to be a little embarrassed if seen, such as by a friend or neighbour, buying a dainty pair of panties in the local clothing store or supermarket. So the vending machines are there to cater to these bashful purchasers.
But these machines also cater to another group of people who have a predilection for female underwear, namely middle aged men, and for many of this group, used is better. Hence, anecdotally some of the machines are said to stock used panties, but what is claimed about these is that the packets have simply been pre-opened and the panties rearranged in the pack, to make them appear as genuinely second hand. Personally I am unable to verify any of this.
9. Festivals (matsuri) Now, moving along, to an indisputably important aspect of the Japanese cultural landscape, and that is festivals. Ideally your trip will coincide with a major festival in one of the towns or cities you visit, but many small local festivals are also well worth seeing. The same floats, which can be 2 or 3 stories high, are often used each year, in some cases involving a cast of hundreds of participants, with many families having an inter-generational involvement. Whilst this isn’t a travelogue, I can’t avoid mentioning the spring festival at the small and very picturesque town of Takayama as well worth seeing
Whilst many localities have their own unique or specialised festival, reflecting a local practice or characteristic, different times of the year are celebrated by festival at numerous places around the country. One of the most common of these is Obon in August, when colourful lanterns are displayed to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors, and many families reunite for a short time. Many people also return to their ancestral family homes, to visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, as well as getting together with relatives. The lanterns can be seen outside the front door of many homes, to guide the ancestral spirits home, as well large public displays of them.
One of the more unusual local festivals, which possibly wouldn’t be held in Australia, the USA and much of the rest of the Western world, is the “Festival of the Steel Phallus” held each April at the penis-venerating Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki. The phallus is also reflected in illustrations, candy, carved vegetables, plus other merchandise and decorations. The Shrine is popular among married-couples seeking marital harmony and easy birth delivery. Obviously this festival is a major tourist attraction, significantly boosting the local economy. As with many old customs and practices in Japan, there is a legend behind the original setting establishment of this festival, which has been swept aside and is now overlooked by the broad popularity and commercialisation of the festival.
10. Public holidays When planning a trip to Japan it is advisable to check whether it occurs at the same time as a public holiday, or cluster of such days, accommodation and transportation can be significantly impacted on. For example, I remember once hearing the statistic of 84 million public transport journeys taking place during Obon; traffic jams on expressways are measured in the tens of kilometres; and patronage on major transport routes, such as the Shinkansen measured in occupancy percentages of above 100% only.
Arising out of the boom economic times of the 1970s and 80s, when other countries were complaining of Japan’s unfair advantage caused by excessive hard work, the government has introduced a number of additional public holidays, of which in 2016 there were 16. The main purpose of many of these was simply to create a reason to force people to take time off work, and to a lesser extent to try and generate interest in the topic of the holiday. Underlying both reasons is also a desire to stimulate the economy, by forcing people to move around and spend money. Some examples of dubious sounding holidays include: Marine day 18.07; Mountain Day 11.08; Respect for the Aged Day 19.09; Health-Sports Day 10.10; Culture Day, 03.11.A more recent trend has been to ensure these holidays fall on a Monday or Friday, thereby creating a swathe of long weekends throughout the year.
Three of the main national holidays include: Firstly: O-Shogatsu, New Year: Christmas decorations, which are mainly just in retail sectors and not commonly in private residences, disappear Christmas night. From the 26th December houses, some businesses & even cars display New Year decorations. At the front entry of particularly more well-to-do homes will be placed a pair of bamboo or pine ornaments, kadomatsu, a sign for the New Year God Toshigami to come down. Kagami mochi – a traditional NY decoration, will be displayed inside the house to bring good luck and prosperity in the NY; made from two different sized rice cakes (mochi), and a daidai, Japanese bitter orange, placed on top. The orange symbolizes the continuity of the generations and long life, the mochi symbolizes the past year and the year to come. So, kagami mochi symbolizes the continuity of the family over the years. It is kept until around the 11th January then cooked & eaten.
Secondly: Coming-of-age Day (Seijin no Hi), is held each year on the second Monday of January, for everyone who turns 20 that year, the age of adulthood. If you happen to be in Japan on this day, and are staying at a large hotel, you will likely see groups of young women in beautiful brightly coloured kimonos, and young men in suits, attending functions at the hotel. It is a watershed date for these new adults, as from this age they are legally able to vote, drive a car, drink alcoholic beverages and smoke.
Thirdly: Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi) , occurs on May 5, and part of Golden Week, a major holiday period that strings together a number of individual holidays. The day is for families to acknowledge their children, and celebrate their happiness, plus to recognise mothers and fathers. Koinobori (carp) flags are flown anywhere a suitable place can be found, ranging from a large flagpole if land is available, to a fridge magnet. According to Chinese legend, a carp swimming upstream becomes a dragon, and the flying flags look like swimming they’re swimming, particularly if flown en masse across bridges spanning country streams.
11. Special days In addition to these public holidays, there are numerous other special days, such as Girls’ Day, or Dolls’ Day, Hina Matsuri, on 3rd March. Platforms covered with a red carpet are used to display a set of ornamental dolls, inside the family home where there is a daughter. Displays can also be seen in more public places, like department stores, as a means of promoting the sales of dolls, but can be quite spectacular. The dolls represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians in traditional court dress of the Heian period, from 794 to 1185. The period is named after the capital city of Heian-kyō, or modern Kyōto
12. Pachinko The overall appearance of Japanese cities can perhaps be described as multi-shaped grey blandness, mixed in with examples of world class design. Also dotted around are garishly illuminated buildings of about four stories high with huge flashing neon lights spelling out totally inappropriate names such as Wellness, Lucky 7 and King of Luck, that contain Japan’s most popular form of gambling, called pachinko. These buildings constitute one of the most visible aspects of modern Japanese culture, a highly popular form of so-called leisure. Pachinko is played on a vertical pinball machine using ball-bearings, which players attempt to coax into holes for a score. Winning shots cause extra balls to spew out into a tray, to be re-used or redeemed for prizes or cash.
With hundreds of machines each churning through thousands of balls, and a congratulatory tune playing every time a win occurs, the decibel levels are very high. Coupled with the tendency for many players to smoke, the interior of a pachinko parlour is an unhealthy environment, but people aren’t there for the good of their health – mostly they go to while away the hours: of an evening after work, from 10 am opening for those without regular work, or on Sunday for those with nothing else to do. There are some professional players, and some others can do well, but as with all gambling these are a minority.
Pachinko parlours usually operate as cash cows for their owners, many of whom are Korean nationals, especially North Korean. Some estimates put the total amount of money sent back to North Korea each year by these owners at around $1 billion. The pachinko industry has for most of its existence, from shortly after World War 2, had a reputation for connections with the underworld, but with large respected corporations entering the industry in the past couple of decades, that image is mellowing. These gaudy, cacophonous buildings are no less representative of present-day Japan than the latest mode Japanese car, and for the visitor warrant at least a quick, look inside, if not a game or two.
13. Yakuza Although Japan is a highly homogenous society, with strong pressures on everyone to live within the mainstream of life, there are some distinct and quite obvious sub-groups, the best known of which are the Japanese mafia, known as yakuza. They had their beginnings in the seventeenth century, and became more prominent in the tumultuous period of the 1850s when Japan was forced by the Americans to open up to the rest of the world. There were two main kinds: those who dealt in stolen goods, like peddlers; and those who derived their livelihoods from gambling and prostitution. The peddlers expanded their selling operations into controlling street stalls and the street space they operate on, such as at temples and on pavements, along with providing security for stallholders, a practice that continues today. The other group expanded into the black market, extortion, money-lending, the manufacturing of illegal drugs and smuggling, including of guns and women for Japan’s sex business.
Joining a yakuza gang is still a career path chosen by some – mostly disaffected younger people, and those with a family history with yakuza, reflecting the history of yakuza gangs originally growing out of a family. Yakuza members are not shy about being recognised as such, instantly recognisable from the colourful clothes they usually wear, the large European or Japanese cars with heavily tinted windows they drive, their body tattoos and for some the lack of the tip of a little finger. It has long been yakuza practice, graphically portrayed in the Michael Douglas movie Black Rain, that this appendage be cut off as punishment for any transgression of club rules, or as an initiation, a rite of passage. Once completed the person is marked for life, although some former members, seeking to go on the straight and narrow, have had the tip of a small toe removed and sewn onto the little finger.
Members of yakuza gangs are among the few private citizens in Japan who possess guns, mostly smuggled in from Russia or Asia. Yet not all activities of yakuza gangs are criminal – since their origins, the gangs have been known to help those in need, such as widows and the elderly, and do voluntary work. For example some yakuza volunteers can be conspicuously seen helping during times of natural disasters, such as earthquakes.
14. Bōsōzoku As with the yakuza, bōsōzoku are another sub-group, sometimes a feeder source for the yakuza, comprising young men and women living and functioning outside of the mainstream. The activity they undertake is to mostly at night ride on motorbikes, usually stolen, revving the motors to their peaks, ignoring traffic signals, road laws and other road users, and generally causing a disturbance to the peace and nuisance to others nearby. Invariably there will be two riders on a bike. They might operate as a group of motor bikes, or individually. The police usually don’t try to stop or catch them.
15. Takarazuka This is the name of an all-female opera company, that performs in its own opera theatre, and travels around Japan. Members are highly trained in both singing and acting, but the group’s special feature is its use of female singers and actors to portray male characters. They must appear masculine when speaking, singing and moving about – to sing like men and move on stage in a swaggering manner like men. The company has a very loyal following, particularly of middle-aged women, who are attracted to the male characters due to their feminine traits of sensitivity and kindness to women.
16. Love hotels Of course this term is a misnomer, as love hotels exist solely for the purpose of sexual liaisons, mostly between unmarried couples, commonly a middle-aged man and young woman. They are often found in clusters, near train stations, expressway interchanges, and city perimeters, perhaps announcing themselves with large well-lit signage. Externally they might range in appearance from Gothic castles to rocket launching pads, but whatever their appearance the emphasis is on privacy. Those on city perimeters or at expressway interchanges, primarily intended for access by car, have walled driveways, and curtains enclose each car in an individual garage.
There is no reception or check-in counter. A door leads from each car space to a central location, where an illuminated signboard contains photos of all rooms, from which a choice can be made. A quick and anonymous entry can then be made. All windows painted over, or non-existent. Closing the room door is often an act of no turning back, because at some places it locks and cannot be opened until payment is made, from inside. Rooms are rented by the hour, but a set fee applies from 9 or 10 pm for an overnight stay of up to 12 hours, which can represent very good value.
Love hotels first started appearing within a couple of decades after the end of World War 2, as the economy strengthened and workers had some spare cash. Initially they primarily catered to married couples, seeking a brief respite from their cramped homes of literally paper thin walls, often shared with a younger and older generation. Soon they began being put to a more lascivious use, and an industry was spawned.
Yet whilst the purpose of love hotels might appear sleazy, they’re always clean and offer an inexpensive and interesting alternative to other forms of accommodation. Bedrooms are spacious and luxuriously appointed, with equally opulent bathrooms. Beds come in all shapes, sizes and colours, rotating, vibrating, swivelling or simply staying still. There usually is an abundance of wall and ceiling mirrors, an ample supply of condoms, and soft porn on the TV. Fetishist outfits, such as doctor and nurses, and school uniforms, can sometimes be rented.
With the objective of avoiding any eye-to-eye contact with staff or other guests, the method of payment is limited to one of three kinds:
a) by pneumatic tube from within the room, the door unlocking only after payment has been made b) by an automatic cash machine, inside the room c) at a kind of reception, where the cashier is hidden and only a pair of hands seen. An overnight stay at a love hotel is recommended.
17. The culture of cute Along with the fashion fads that regularly come and go in Japan, there has been one constant that has spanned the past five or six decades, and has become part of modern Japanese culture: an infatuation with things cute, which I have chosen to describe as ‘the culture of cute.’ For example, an over-riding consideration when choosing clothes for children is that they enhance the child’s cuteness, a prime example being Miki House products. Age is no barrier to being hooked on cute products. Hello Kitty is a good example of a symbol popular among a wide age range, from pre-teens girls to middle-age women, on all kinds of products.
Many organisations, such as government departments, the police, and local councils have their own cute mascot, usually some kind of made-up animal, to humanise the organisation and make it appear more approachable. Merchandise sales can be a handy follow-up also.
18. Cosplay This word is a contraction of the words costume role play, a kind of performance art in which participants wear costumes, accessories and makeup to represent a specific character. Cosplayers often form their own groups, and in Japan there is a sub-culture of cosplay individuals and groups, who might perform role plays representing the characters they are dressed as. Young women wearing cosplay are a common sight in Akihabara, Harajuku and other parts of Tokyo. The characters are sourced from manga, anime, video, movies and television characters, but can be other human or non-human entities as well. Gender switching isn’t uncommon. Cosplay has become a significant part of Japanese popular culture, spreading to other parts of Asia and beyond.
19. Enjo Kosai Both the culture of cute, where involving women, and cosplay, highlight the tendency for a girlish, feminine appearance of young women, and older women seeking to still look young. Enjo kosai is a social phenomenon that centres on the fascination and infatuation some middle-aged men have for school girls, in uniform. In the West this might be described as the Lolita syndrome. It is a trend that has been visible and developing for about twenty years, and is uncommon, if not completely unknown, elsewhere.
Translated the expression means ‘compensated dating,’ and hence it is not necessarily prostitution. It is the practice of young women accepting money and goods from older men, in return for going on dates with them, which may or may not involve sex. As the men usually want only actual schoolgirls for these purposes, some women a little older dress up in this manner, to cash in, and it is these slightly older women who may be more inclined to allow sexual favours as part of the arrangement. Especially in Tokyo and Osaka, many high school girls have admitted to at least calling a phone sex service to find out how they work and how they can meet men through them.
20. Juku Visitors to Japan might wonder how it can be that early to mid-teenage schoolgirls can be seen wandering around city entertainment districts well into the night, still dressed in their school uniforms, without being questioned or barely noticed, perhaps standing or walking beside an obviously much older man in a suit. Whilst one explanation might be an enjo kosai liaison, this need not necessarily be the case.
The Japanese education system is segmented into up to five different stages, and many educational institutions in each of these, from kindergarten to university, require entry via an entrance exam. It is for preparation for these exams that the juku industry started up decades ago, many by teachers looking for extra income or a new career. They might be referred to as ‘cram schools.’ Classes are of necessity held of an evening and on weekends, after normal school hours, many students travelling directly from school to juku, for yet more hours of rote learning and listening to teachers.
Of a night time these classes might not finish before 10 o’clock, hence the common sight of uniform clad students, and even primary school-age students in casual clothes, walking about well into the night. Some jukus provide a driving home service, but many students have to make their own way home, for a late meal, an inadequate night’s sleep, and a repeat the following day.
21. Hostessing and maid shops As a variation on the theme of enjo kosai, in some areas of Tokyo girls can be seen hanging around waiting for customers. These are teenage and early twenties women who doll themselves up, and simply provide company to apparently lonely office workers before they return home. Sex generally isn’t part of the deal, rather the girls are sought out for company only, morale and self-esteem boosting. It leads one to wonder what extent of companionship and psychological support the average wife provides her husband in Japan, yet it might be that these husbands simply enjoy having their egos stroked by attractive, girlish females, in the process helping them temporarily feel young, wanted, carefree and desirable again.
22. Geisha Unlike the previous social trends involving females, especially younger ones, the geisha is one exclusively female role generally known about outside Japan. But how well, I wonder. The origins of geisha go back to the early 17th century, when young women were entertaining in the mizu shobai , translated as ‘water business,’ the euphemism that described the red light district – the reason being that these areas usually were located near or as part of port suburbs, to service sex-starved sailors upon their return to land.
Over time, the more highly skilled of the women working in these quarters, particularly those who could dance and play a musical instrument, were able to separate these more cultural services from the purely sexual. By the mid 18th century these skilled entertainers were known as geisha, their work comprising cultural rather than sexual services. Throughout they’ve been the sole preserve of the rich. At the start of the 20th century there were 80,000 practising geisha, but now only about 1,000, the most traditional of whom are in Kyoto.
Young women who decide to become a geisha must wait until they turn eighteen to start training, fifteen in Kyoto. These trainees (maiko) leave their home and board at a special training centre. Six years is required to achieve geisha status, during which the girls learn to sing, dance, and play at least one musical instrument. It’s common for a wealthy man, most likely aged at the youngest in his 40s, to adopt the role of patron to a young maiko, contributing to the funding of her training.
Part of the patronage understanding might be that it is he who deflowers the young woman, and they enter into a sexual relationship, but this is far from always the case. As a geisha ages and remains unmarried, she may enter into a relationship with a customer, and if the man is a widower they might eventually marry, the woman acquiring a form of superannuation policy, the man a companion and ultimately carer. Alternatively, some geisha never marry, especially if they have become successful business women without any need for external financial support, perhaps having their own geisha training school.
23. Manga The Japanese are the world’s foremost consumers of comics, a weekly habit of a large percentage of the population. The practice continues for many people well into adulthood, technical journals and reference books commonly illustrated with sketches, drawings, diagrams and comics. Comic books are either the size common to Western comics, or in book form, the size of a novel.
Manga can validly be considered a traditional form of entertainment, learning and story-telling in Japan, as their origins reach back over a thousand years, to the practice of Buddhist priests using pictorial scrolls to explain their teachings to the illiterate. Many manga contain long, involved stories extending over a hundred pages, quite different from cartoons common in the West.
Manga are mostly not of the hero and villain style either, but a commentary on everyday life themes and issues, with characters the average person can relate to, and in some cases aspire to emulate. The topics covered might be associated with the workplace, religion, prevailing economic conditions, families and sexual matters. There are hundreds of different categories, for varying age sectors of both genders.
Manga characters are also commonly used at many locations and for many purposes throughout the urban landscape. They create a warm and friendly feeling, helping the local populace better connect with the organisation or message behind the character.
24. Otaku This word describes people who have an obsessive interest in anything, such as computers, video games, trains, cars, cameras, pop stars, and costumes. The only similar words in English are probably nerd or geek, but these words are more restricted and limited in their meaning. The lives of otaku revolve around reading, viewing, collecting and role-playing anime and manga characters. They exhibit an unrelenting pursuit of information about their subject of interest, to become an encyclopedia about it; Akihabara is the best-known place for the main kind of otaku, the collectors of manga, but there are also plenty of other otaku obsessive about their interest, whether it be trains, military equipment or pop stars.
25. Sumō tournaments The sport of the sumō wrestler is seen as the most traditional Japanese sport, perhaps followed by judo and aikido. Tournaments are held six times a year, each year at the same city according to the season. Tokyo is in January. Television coverage, on the government carrier NHK, is for the whole day on each day of the two week tournaments, with the last couple of hours each day also being shown on the bilingual satellite channel, well worth viewing for the last thirty minutes leading up to 6 pm when the top wrestlers compete.
Each movement has its own name, but other key words are dohyo, the square mound of packed clay where the action takes place, mawashi, the loin-cloth style belt they wear, and chonmage, their top-knot hairstyle. A visit to a tournament is well worthwhile, but it is difficult to get tickets for seating close to the action. Cushions are thrown into the ring as acknowledgement of a great win at the end of a bout, which can last from anywhere between five seconds and a couple of minutes.
26. Golf practice ranges Another construction unavoidable to miss across the Japanese urban landscape is the golf driving range, a huge oblong-shaped skeletal frame enshrouded in a netting, brightly lit well into the night, every night, where sports-starved golfers get the chance to bang away at as many balls as they’re prepared to pay for. The hitting end might have two additional levels above ground, to maximise the entombed land area beyond, the ground ahead appearing like a hail storm has just passed over, so thickly covered by golf balls.
27. Cherry blossom (sakura) viewing and celebrating One of the best-known and most-cherished times of the year in Japan is the sakura season, cherry blossoms, when vast numbers of people go hanami, cherry blossom viewing. This is a significant cultural and festive occasion in Japan, from late March into April, depending on the location. Other blossoms, mainly plum and peach, arrive earlier, but it is the cherry blossoms that are the most eagerly anticipated and feted. Cherry blossom decorations start appearing in shopping areas and other public places from mid-March, and as the plants approach full bloom, crowds gather beneath the trees to celebrate their beauty by eating, drinking and particularly at night, singing.
This partying reaches a crescendo on the few days when the blossoms are in full bloom. Timing and weather conditions are important for these activities, as if the weather is wet or windy just as the blossoms are at their fullest, the peak viewing period might last for as little as two or three days. But undeterred stalwarts will still hold their parties under the trees even in inclement weather.
28. Other massed plantings The cherry, peach and plum trees are far from being the only displays of massed plantings throughout urban Japan. Azaleas, hydrangeas, camellias, gardenias, wisteria and irises are just some of the other kinds of plantings used for full floral effect along roadways, down embankments and in parks and public gardens. There are many quite spectacular examples of these, but for generating public excitement nothing even approaches the cherry blossoms.
29. Public bathing For Japanese people the daily, in fact usually nightly, bath is a ritual that will only be missed under exceptional circumstances, such as a late night accompanied by heavy intoxication. A day is not complete unless it ends with a lengthy soak in a hot bath. For anyone who stays in a private residence, at traditional style accommodation, or visits an onsen, a hot spring, it is essential to be aware of the procedure for taking a bath, which comprises two activities, in two separate areas.
The first involves washing one’s body thoroughly, and rinsing off all soap. The second involves soaking in the bath. These two actions must never occur together, in the bath, which must never contain soap. In a private home, the whole family uses the same bathfull of water, although it is topped up as required through usage, so the idea is for it to remain as clear as possible until the last user, who will invariably be the mother, unless her husband is very late.
Communal bathing is common and popular in Japan, both at places of accommodation, such as hot springs, onsen, and at public bathing centres, sento. Sento was traditionally where a large proportion of everyday people bathed, and socialised, but with all homes now having modern bathing facilities these are less common, but some still exist. The vast majority (but not all) of these public bathing facilities are gender segregated.
30. Onsen Whilst visiting a sento is an uncommon occurrence nowadays, visiting an onsen is a very popular activity. Soaking in the soothing waters is a quintessential Japanese experience, and recommended as both a cultural and sensory experience. Japan is riddled with underwater aquifers, and taking advantage of these are thousands of places of accommodation offering guests the chance to luxuriate in the steaming waters. Bathing is naked, most bathing areas segregated by gender, but there are still some unsegregated onsen, a carry-over from the old days before Western values introduced the notion of prudery into habits of cleanliness. Some onsen have small private bathing areas for a single family group, rented by the hour.
In your room will be a yukata, a kind of dressing gown, which can be worn to the bathing area. Take a small towel too, an oshibori. It’s important to follow the set procedure upon entry, after making sure you enter the correct gender. First remove footwear then clothing, and proceed to the washing area, a row of taps and detachable shower heads in front of mirrors, where people usually sit on a small plastic stool and wash themselves thoroughly. Only when all soap is removed can you enter the water, where you soak and luxuriate in the warmth as long as your body will tolerate it.
31. Transportation Famed images of white-gloved railway officials pushing commuters into already packed subway carriages do represent the truth, but only on the busiest Tokyo Subway lines during peak hours. Other times there are always plenty of passengers, but not so many that require this extent of squeezing in.
The first thought that comes to mind when anyone asks me about driving in Japan is, why would you? The railway network is extensive and highly reliable, added to by some very good long-distance coach services. Driving on expressways is expensive, and challenging without the ability to read Japanese kanji characters, although not impossible. Good maps are in Japanese, as is the local GPS system. Whether or not there is any English language version available I’m not sure. If so, this would make a huge difference. Admittedly, car travel enables access to a vast array of places of interest and accommodation otherwise out of reach, but a feasible option usually is a taxi from the nearest railway station – it surely won’t be very far.
32. The abacus This centuries-old calculating device is still in use in Japan, often seen in shops. It’s made of bamboo and rectangular in shape, with thin rods carrying beads which are moved with lightning speed by skilled operators. Tests for checking the speed and skill of abacus users are held on a regular basis, even including competitions pitting the abacus against the calculator, quite often the former winning. Like watching a card-sharp shuffling a pack of cards, the hands and fingers of a skilled abacus user move faster than the eye can follow.
33. Department stores Department stores are good places to buy high quality items as souvenirs and gifts, rather than, or as well as, trinkets from temples and shrines. They can also provide an insight into Japanese consumer habits and tastes. For a great sensory experience, the basement food courts are well worth visiting, often with free sampling available. Also, bento, lunch boxes, are discounted from late afternoon, so this can be a good way of purchasing an inexpensive and fresh evening meal, so long as you have somewhere to sit to eat it, such as your hotel room.
34. Street vendors Japan has a long history of street vendors plying their wares by cart, including small trucks and vans carrying clothes line poles or heating oil; hand-pulled carts selling delicious hot sweet potatoes (satsumaimo); and bicycles selling freshly made tofu. Often they are promoted by a distinctive and instantly recognisable tape-recorded message or tune, such as a steam whistle for the sweet potatoes, and a subdued pipe music late at night for the noodle van. It’s all about convenience and freshness.
For casual night-time dining and drinking, portable pavement food stalls, yatai, can be an interesting experience, an integral part of inner city night life in some cities. They exist in two main forms: first, the kind that service a city centre. They are wheeled out onto pavements from late afternoon, remaining there until last customers leave, anytime between midnight and 5 am. Note that the level of hygiene might be questionable and of course there are no toilets, the nearest probably being in the subway. The second kind of yatai are the food stalls found at shrine and temple festivals.
Two other kinds of mobile loudspeaker announcements seen and heard from time to time are: 1) warning of an approaching typhoon, street by street; and 2) electioneering: pre-election time is one of intensified street noise and activity. Teams of uniformed, white gloved supporters and slogan-bedecked candidates travel around in vans and mini-buses, the candidate or a female supporter loudly proclaiming why a vote for them is warranted and strongly imploring everyone to do so, whilst furiously waving to everyone in sight.
35. Fortune-telling and good luck charms Another profession operating off the footpath is fortune-tellers, who have been appearing on the pavements of Japanese towns and cities for over 300 years. From dusk, when shops and offices are closing, they set up with a small table, two or three stools, a small lamp and perhaps some incense, usually in doorways, not impeding the flow of pedestrian traffic. In some places, as is the case for the sidewalk food vendors, yakuza will request a payment for the use of the space.
At an average of ¥3,000 per fortune told, which would normally take less than ten minutes, the better-known and more popular fortune-tellers can do very well. They are catering to the unceasing interest many Japanese have in their future, especially young women who comprise the majority of customers and whose primary concerns are about relationships, if they’re in one, and careers.
The more experienced fortune-tellers use a range of techniques, such as palmistry, tarot cards, astrology, numerology, aromatherapy, names and blood types. Many now are providing a broader service, as more a counsellor than just predicting the future. They become skilled at ascertaining if a customer has a particular worry or concern, and whilst providing a reading on that issue, might also give some worldly advice or guidance.
Customers who feel buoyed by the advice they receive and believe they have benefited from it, might well make numerous subsequent visits; similarly if predictions turn out to be accurate.Apartments
36. Apartments Nowadays the majority of the population live in apartments, but still there is a huge number of individual free-standing houses, of necessity on small plots. Most apartment buildings are bland and uninteresting designs, with little variation from one block to another, but some are cutting edge designs of international standard.
37. Houses Similarly with houses: the majority look pretty much the same, with walls prefabricated and made in a factory, then the internal sections fitted on site. Yet there is a small number of very imaginative or quirky designs reflecting an individualist streak in the owner. Also, wealthier families would be able afford construction of a more traditional style, and these can be seen in more affluent suburban locations or in more rural settings. Many homes with even tiny gardens use the space to feature the Japanese style neatly trimmed trees and raked pebble. Whilst these are often very attractive, most of them exhibit these same features.
38. Street scenes At the street level the ordered chaos of Japanese urban living is clearly visible, especially among the narrower lanes where front doors open straight onto the street. It is a jumble of walls, doors, pipes, guttering, air conditioner units and clothes lines, with a little greenery squeezed in occasionally. Daily life inside, such as family chatter and cooking smells, unavoidably spills out onto the street, impinging on privacy. The coming and going of family members, to school, work or shopping, is easily noticed by neighbours, and no doubt any untoward movement quietly commented on. Yet people keep to themselves and strive to retain their privacy as best they can. The pace of life is rapid, and changes only in the longer term, as children grow up and progress through the education stages.
39. Rural scenes Farming life dominates rural areas, although with small acreages and mechanisation many farmers need only be part-time. Rice farming is of necessity very seasonal, with planting and harvesting seasons times of activity, surrounded by many months of little to do. Many farmers have allowed at least some of their rice paddies to lie fallow, or have swapped over to growing seasonal vegetables. Reflecting the farming lobby’s political clout, local farming country roads are always good and seldom used, hence ideal for cycling. Many farmhouses are very old, but commonly a late model motor car and modern machinery can be seen in old wooden farm sheds. Often thick outcrops of bamboo can be seen interspersing the rice paddies, two tones of green merging.
41. Cleanliness Another aspect of train travel that struck me on this first trip was the cleanliness of carriages and stations, and the lack of graffiti, indicating an admirable respect for public property missing in many other countries. A prime example were the advertising posters hanging from carriage ceilings, that wouldn’t last untouched for five minutes in some countries, but that in Japan remained in a pristine condition until they were replaced. Along the interminable passageways between stations in the Tokyo subway system not even a chewing gum wrapper could be spied.
However, this image of respect for public places changed somewhat after I went to live in Japan in 1991, and took up my cycling habit there, because at various locations outside the suburbs, particularly waterways, it wasn’t uncommon to see abandoned bicycles, small electrical goods and other household items, generally referred to as moenai gomi, hard rubbish. There was more than one instance when I noticed one or two items at a roadside spot, or beside a waterway, and a couple of weeks later saw the number of dumped items had significantly increased.
One practice regarding the disposal of waste in public that was quite different from what I was used to was that many parks and other public open spaces did not have rubbish bins: users had to take their own rubbish home, and in the vast majority of cases they did.
To be continued ……