Saturday, 14 April 2018

Disneyland, Kawaii Culture, and the Rejection of Adulthood

This Sunday (April 15th) marks the 35th anniversary of the opening of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. The popularity of Disneyland (and DisneySea which opened in 2001) in Japan is phenomenal: the number of visitors to the two parks over the past 35 years totals about 720 million. In fiscal 2017 alone there were 30.1 million visitors to the two, around a quarter of the Japanese population! That is not to say that 1 in 4 Japanese have visited though; as well as non-Japanese visitors there are a solid core of repeaters, particularly high-school girls, who buy the annual passport and go as often as once a week!

Many of these teenage (and older) fans will go with groups of friends all dressed up the same, known as "matching coordination" (osoro kōde =おそろコーデ): a recent trend is to all wear the same school uniform (seifuku dizunī =制服ディズニー) a kind of cosplay (complete with Mickey Mouse ears) that even high-school graduates enjoy. This trend reflects the high social capital enjoyed by the female high-school (joshi-kōsei =女子高生) or JK brand whose members have a high degree of pride in their identity as a "JK."

While visiting Disneyland, visitors young and old alike will stock up on cute Disney goods (it is de riguer to have a cute character - usually just one - hanging off your bag in high-school - or even university - see picture). Thus, the whole cute character boom lasts far longer in Japan age-wise and Japanese young adults can strike their Western counterparts as immature and even childish. This is indeed the essential meaning of the Japanese word kawaii which though usually translated as "cute" is rather different from its English equivalent. Sharon Kinsella, in a superb chapter entitled "Cuties in Japan" (1995), defines kawaii as "sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced." For her, the Japanese kawaii movement represents a rebellion against or escape from the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood, immersion in a pre-social world that is nothing less than a rejection of Japanese society itself.

The word kawaii first emerged in the 1970s but only reached what Kinsella calls its"peak of saccharine intensity" in the early 1980s - exactly when Disneyland opened. On reflection, Disney is the perfect match for Japanese with its emphasis on (a) cute and (b) customer service. Since Steam Boat Willy in 1928, Disney films have been adored in Japan, perhaps even more so than in America (though as Kinsella points out "Disney cute" tends to romanticise an ideal rural pre-industrial society rather than childhood per se). In fact Japanese comics (manga) - which are read by young and old alike - drew inspiration from Disney: Osamu Tezuka, the "god" of Japanese manga and the father of the cute big-eyed style characteristic of many manga today was strongly influenced by Walt Disney.


In recent years though, competition has emerged for Disneyland, competition which suggests that cute (Minions and Hello Kitty aside) is no longer indispensable for attracting a Japanese audience. Universal Studios Japan (USJ) opened in Osaka in 2001 and topped 100 million visitors by 2012, even before the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2014. A look at the Global Attractions Attendance Report for 2016 shows USJ catching up fast and now sitting at number 4 in the worldwide ranking with an annual attendance of 13.9 million, sandwiched between Tokyo Disneyland at number 3 (16 million annual visitors) and Tokyo DisneySea (13.6 million). Is kawaii culture fading? Are Japanese youth ready to re-embrace adulthood? If the queen of kawaii, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, is anything to go by, the answer is yes: Kyary recently dyed her hair black and started wearing natural make-up leaving fans asking whether she had grown up and journalists speculating that the era of Harajuku kawaii Lolita fashion was finally over.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Octopus Balls Bridging the East/West Divide

Takoyaki Pringles - only in Kansai
In a previous post I mentioned that in contrast to the UK north/south divide, in Japan the division is East (Kantō =関東) vs West (Kansai =関西) particularly with regard to culture and language. For example, in contrast to the national stereotype of Japanese as quiet, indirect, and polite, people from Kansai (especially Osaka) are said to be blunt and direct (verging on rude), but also quirky and humour-loving (as well as careful with their money). Even escalator etiquette is different between Tokyo and Osaka: the former stand on the left and the latter on the right, apparently a remnant of the dominant samurai vs merchant populations.

One of the biggest differences between Kanto and Kansai though is the food. Dashi stock tastes and is made differently, with Tokyoites favouring stronger more pungent tastes (stinky natto fermented soya beans are much more popular in the East than the West!). A well-known food which originated in Osaka - "invented" in 1935 by a street vendor who drew inspiration from akashiyaki - are octopus balls known as takoyaki. These are small round dumplings made from batter with pieces of octopus in the middle usually covered with a Worcestershire type brown sauce, mayonnaise, and dried bonito shavings (which wriggle around on top due to the heat as if they were alive!). Tako (タコ - the kanji is not widely known) means octopus and yaki comes from yaku (焼く) meaning to cook, fry, or grill: many Japanese foods contain this word (such as as yaki-tori, okonomi-yaki, or yaki-soba).
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Although originating in Osaka, takoyaki are common all over Japan today, from supermarkets to convenience stores. People also make these at home using a cast iron electric takoyaki pan like the one pictured. It takes quite a bit of skill to do this well though as the balls have to be turned with a pick in the semi-spherical mould so that all the batter is cooked thoroughly and a ball shape is created. Watching a professional turn hundreds of octopus balls in lightning fast fashion is quite a sight to behold!

In Tokyo takoyaki is definitely a snack food, something one might pick up on the way home after a night out drinking. The picture shows our local takoyaki truck which parks itself in front of the station at night to entice intoxicated office workers, in the fashion of the British burger or kebab van. In Osaka, though, takoyaki is eaten as a main dish with rice, something which never fails to surprise Tokyoites.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Amazing Japanese Bakeries: English Bread, Bean Paste Bread, and Curry Bread

When once thinks of everyday food in Japan, rice is the first thing that comes to mind. However, bread is also hugely popular; indeed, your typical busy Japanese is probably just as likely to have toast and coffee for breakfast as rice! The Japanese have a traditional breakfast (rice, soup, fish, vegetables etc) about as often as a Brit enjoys a full English breakfast (i.e. not very often). The word for bread in Japanese is pan (パン), the same as Spanish, though the word itself reportedly came from Portuguese pão since it was the Portuguese who introduced bread in the 16th century. See here for a brief history of bread in Japan.

Today, bakeries are everywhere in Japan and the variety of bread products is mouth-watering. The system is help-yourself; on entering a bread shop you pick up a tray and a pair of tongs and pick out what you want. You then take the tray over to the cash register (reji =レジ) and they will put your selections into separate bags and total them up. In the UK it's more common to point out what you want to the shopkeeper who will then bag up your requests. Interestingly, there are some in hygiene-conscious who dislike the fact that everything is open to customer's whims (and their coughs and sneezes - just like oden) but most people don't seem to mind.

Tsubu-an doughnuts: all sold out
Two of my Japanese bakery favourites are an-pan (red bean paste or anko bread) and kare-pan (curry bread). The former is made from azuki beans (小豆) and comes in two kinds: tsubu-an (containing lumps - tsubu  or 粒 is the counter for small round objects) and koshi-an (smooth). Japanese tend to fall into one camp or the other and there is much argument over which is better. Different breads also appear in different seasons: because now is cherry blossom time, sakura (cherry) an-pan are on sale. As the picture shows, these have a real salt-pickled (shio-zuke =塩漬け) edible cherry petal on top and the bread has a pink tinge. Anpanman is also the name of one of Japan's most popular characters with a full bakery cast that includes Karepanman, Shokupanman, Melonpanna, Creampanda, and many more!


My second favourite bread is kare-pan, deep-fried pirozhki-style bread with curry sauce inside which first appeared in 1972. Sometimes they contain extra fillings as well as curry such as the ones pictured which have a soft-boiled coddled egg (hanjuku-tamago =半熟卵) inside. Delicious!

As a Brit, I was interested to discover the special kind of bread known as igirisu-pan  or "English bread" when I first arrived. This is basically a plain white "mountain-shaped" (yama-gata =山型) loaf which is usually sold not as a whole loaf but in packs of six or eight slices. This is distinguished from the cheaper shoku-pan (食パン) often sold in convenience stores which is less airy and more dense (kime ga araku =キメが粗く) and often contains butter and sugar (pictured). But despite "English bread" being a staple in both Japan and the UK, the types of sandwiches eaten are not always the same; Japanese are usually shocked by the traditional British chip "butty" (fried potato sandwich) while this Brit may has never got used to yaki-soba (fried noodle) pan and the stomach-churning Japanese fruit and whipped cream sandwich (pictured). Vive la difference!

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Flying Visit to the Old Capital: Kyoto Travel Tips (Part 2)

Main sanctuary at Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Once you've arrived in Kyoto, found a place to stay, and rented a kimono, you're all set to begin sightseeing. If you rented kimono at the place I recommended in part 1 then you're well placed to walk to Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of bright vermillion torii gates (sen bon dorii =千本鳥居) - and also featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha. Keen followers of this blog may remember that the Goddess Inari is one of the main kami of Shinto: look out for all the (very stylised) foxes, especially in pairs, said to be the messengers of the Goddess. At night (it's open 24 hours) you may even encounter a real fox! The torii gates lead you on various trails heading upwards through forest, passing small shrines. Interestingly, the gates themselves get smaller as you progress up the mountain - while the crowds only seem to get bigger!

If you did rent kimono, your zōri-clad feet will no doubt be killing you after the tough climb at Fushimi Inari Shrine, so why not experience a unique Japanese-style Starbucks? This is found at Ninenzaka (map here) a beautiful thoroughfare of traditional Japanese houses, restaurants, and shops between Yasaka (Gion) Shrine and the world heritage Kiyomizu Temple. The Starbucks is officially called Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya (二年坂ヤサカ茶屋) with chaya meaning "tea house" and has tatami flooring, shōji paper sliding doors, and even a little Japanese garden.

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If you have any energy left (I did say it was a flying visit!) a final recommendation would be the gold-leaf coated Kinkakuji (金閣寺=Golden Temple/Pavilion), though it is a lot further out and requires a thirty to forty-minute bus-ride from Kyoto Station. The temple was actually burned down in 1950 by a young monk and this incident is the basis of the story for Yukio Mishima's 1956 novel named after the temple (the monk was obsessed by its beauty in the book). The story is also included in the classic 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters co-written and directed by Paul Schrader with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas as executive producers. Mishima's central theme was the dichotomy between traditional Japanese values and the spiritual barrenness of contemporary life. See here for a fascinating interview with Mishima in English which covers a range of topics - including ritual suicide (seppuku) which was the cause of his death in 1970.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Flying Visit to the Old Capital: Kyoto Travel Tips (Part 1)

While Tokyo has its fare share of attractions, Kyoto is the more popular tourist destination, and rightly so. As is commonly known, Kyoto or 京都 (made up of the characters for capital and seat of government) was the capital for over a thousand years, up until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Tokyo is the "new" capital which is reflected in the kanji characters 東 and 京 - "Eastern capital". Whereas in the UK we talk of a north/south divide, in Japan the division is East (kantō =関東) vs West (kansai =関西) and the culture and language are rather different. Top tip: if you want to sound like a local remember to pronounce the cities using two syllables - Tō + kyo and Kyo + to, not three syllables as is typical in the English speaking world (To-ki-o and Ki-yo-to).

Travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train (shinkansen) takes around two and a half hours, a little faster or slower depending on the type of train you take. The shinkansen is expensive even for Japanese though you'll save a little if you don't reserve a seat (trains are frequent and queueing efficient). If you're a tourist though the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited travel for 7, 14, or 21 days, is an absolute bargain. Once you're on board, eating an eki-ben (駅弁 - literally station boxed lunch) is a must and you can buy these before or after you get on.

Once you arrive at Kyoto Station - a huge and futuristic building completed in 1997 after years of controversy over it not being "traditional" enough - you'll need to find a place to stay. One Japanese inn (ryokan =旅館) I've used a few times which is just a few minutes from the station is called Heianbo. It has Japanese style tatami rooms, yukata to put on after you go in the (Japanese-style) communal bath, and provides a (hefty) Japanese breakfast for a little extra.

Once you've dumped your bags and are ready to begin sightseeing, you need the right garb for visiting those historical temples, shrines, and gardens. One fun thing to do is to rent a kimono for the day - both male and female versions are available. Aiwafuku Fushimiinari has an English page with a lot of different plans available, including hair arrangement and ornaments plus accessories such as Japanese sandals or zōri (pictured). Be warned though, the plus-size tourist may struggle: male kimono go up to 185cm in height (taller men will have a shorter kimono!) while hips  (hippu=ヒップ) only up to 110cm/120cm for women/men are catered for. See part 2 for the next instalment: places to visit.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Japan as a Smoker's Paradise: Manners Maketh Man?

MHLW Passive Smoking Logo Mark
Preparations began last week to submit a bill to strengthen measures against passive smoking (jyudō kitsuen bōshi taisaku no kyōka =受動喫煙防止対策の強化). Jyudō means passive, while kitsuen - literally to consume smoke (=kemuri) - is the word for smoking. Japan is infamously lax in its "no-smoking" (kin'en =禁煙) regulations - it lies in the bottom of the WHO's four-stage scale for passive smoking - but with the Olympics rapidly approaching there has been pressure to tighten the rules. The final bill, however, although introducing fines for the first time, has been massively watered down, ostensibly due to pressure from the restaurant industry (video in Japanese here). In particular the "small-eatery exemption" (Japanese graphic here) was raised from 30㎡ to 150㎡ in the final proposal. This means that most small, independently run restaurants and bars will continue to allow smoking "at their discretion".

Even though smoking rates have dropped in recent years - from 27.7% in 2003 to 18.2% today - many visitors to Japan remain perplexed at Japanese ambivalent attitude towards smoking. The oft heard view is that smoking is a matter of manners and should not be regulated by the law. With this mantra in mind, smoking in the street has been banned by many cities, including around Tokyo, ironically forcing many smokers inside and encouraging the spread of "segregated" smoking corners, sections, and rooms (where more often than not the smoke simply wafts over to the "non-smoking" section). The fact that the government is trumpeting the fact that the new bill will bring in a total ban on smoking on hospital and school premises, and inside public offices, shows just how far behind Japan remains in terms of international norms. I am reminded of this whenever I walk past my local school at weekends and see a cluster of baseball coaches puffing away just outside the school gate. The existence of the ubiquitous cigarette vending machines (pictured) is a further example.
Picture of a cigarette vending machine and small windows selling tobacco goods attached to a new house
A cigarette vending machine & "tobacco" kiosk attached to a house, providing income for the owners
A big change in smoking culture in Japan recently has been the huge popularity of IQOS heat-not-burn "smokeless" cigarettes. In 2014, Nagoya was the first place (together with Milan) where these type of cigarettes were released, and they became available nation-wide in 2016. Demand has apparently outstripped capacity and the conversion rate from regular cigarettes is said to be 72%. Coming out of Harajuku Station there is a small IQOS shop which boasted long lines when it first opened. The popularity of IQOS is reflected in the new law: whereas conventional cigarettes will only be allowed in closed spaces in larger restaurants, heat-not-burn cigarettes will be allowed in separate but open smoking sections - despite evidence that the fumes still contain cancer-causing chemicals.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Graduation Season: Farewells and Fireflies

March in Japan is a month of endings and goodbyes. Even the previous year itself is not properly finished until the end of the month: March 31st marks the end of the both the school year and the fiscal year, that is 2017 nendo (年度). One of the most visible manifestations of such endings are the graduation ceremonies or sotsugyō-shiki (卒業式) with sotsu meaning to finish (oeru / owaru) or to even to die (sossuru). More colloquially, sotsugyō suru also means to get over or lose interesting in something. Next week is the time for university graduation ceremonies while high-school graduation ceremonies were held the week before.

I don't remember anything special at all happening for my high-school graduation in the UK, but in Japan it's rather a splendid affair with lots of speeches and songs. First, second, and (graduating) third-grade students as well as parents and guardians (hogo-sha =保護者) sit facing the stage where various dignitaries are seated. Each student is called and they go up on stage in turn to get their graduation certificate (sotsugyō shōsho =卒業証書)from the headmaster. There is rather a strict protocol for receiving the certificate: bow once, receive the certificate with two hands (also the polite way to receive a business card), step back one step, and then bow one more time.

Graduation ceremonies almost always feature the singing of "Hotaru no Hikari" (蛍の光) or "Glow of a Firefly" first introduced in a collection for elementary school students in 1881. However, the melody is immediately familiar: Auld Lang Syne. The lyrics to this classic New Year's Eve song seem to match well: Auld Lang Syne starts with a call to remember long-standing friendships. However, the Japanese lyrics are rather different, focusing instead on a hard-working student reflecting on how the years have flown by studying "by the light of fireflies." But the song is not only heard in March: it is also played throughout the year at closing time in shops!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Hinamatsuri Doll's Festival and Changing Tradition

For a country whose people have the reputation of being hard-workers, Japan has an awful lot of national holidays: currently 16, which is one of the highest in the world. England and Wales, by contrast has only 7 bank holidays as they are called in the UK. However, of these 16 holidays, only one, Boy's Day on May 5th (though it is officially called Children's Day), coincides with one of the five traditional seasonal festivals (go-sekku =五節句) that used to be celebrated at the Japanese imperial court. The others - Nanakusa no Sekku (January 7th), Girl's Day (March 3rd), Tanabata (July 7th), and Chrysanthemum Day or Kiku no Sekku (September 9th) are still celebrated but are not official holidays.
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Yesterday (March 3rd) was Hinamatsuri (雛祭), variously called Girl's Day, Doll's Day, or Peach Day in English: the kanji "hina", meaning a chick or infant, is not common and "hina" is usually written in hiragana. Around this time, in public places, such as hotels and department stores, one can often see elaborate displays of ornamental dolls arranged on multiple tiers on top of a red cloth. In the past, such displays were also brought out every year in families with young girls though with the increasing mobility of nuclear families together with the price - the full set pictured here is a snip at ¥580,000 or £4,000! - this is becoming rather rare. Often, only the seated emperor (obina =男雛) and empress (mebina= 女雛) dolls are displayed, though even this is becoming less and less common. For those families that do put them out, superstition says they must be cleared away the day after, or else their daughters will marry late if at all. Many of the original superstitions centering on purification - rubbing the dolls was said to transfer evil spirits or sickness - have been forgotten entirely.

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Like many other holidays and festivals, in recent years Girl's Day has become more and more commercialised and supermarkets put on elaborate displays of snacks - such as special rice-crackers (hina-arare) - and sashimi (raw fish). My local supermarket even put on a tuna-cutting performance (kaitai-shō =解体ショー) on the actual day! Chirashi-zushi - raw fish and vegetables sprinkled or "scattered" (chirasu =散らす) on top of a bowl of sushi rice - has always been a traditional food around Girl's Day but it has never been promoted as heavily as it is now. Like many families, we didn't display any dolls, but did go for the sushi - though we opted for temaki (hand-rolled) sushi rather than chirashi-zushi. So much for tradition...

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Karaoke Boxes: Destroying the Myth of the Quiet, Shy Japanese

Amongst the hundreds of Japanese words which have made it into the Oxford English dictionary many remain unfamiliar to the average Brit - think hikikomori, karōshi, and otaku for example. Karaoke, though, is familar to absolutely everyone and some even know that the word comes from kara (meaning empty - the same kara as in kara-te or empty hand) and an abbreviation for "orchestra" (ōkesutora in Japanese). One interesting thing is how the pronunciation changes in English: mysteriously the Japanese ke and ka sounds often morph into a ki sound in English, so karaoke is typically pronounced kari-oki (just like kara-te is often pronounced karati by English speakers). It is not only the pronunciation that is different though: karaoke is a completely different cultural activity in Japan, one that takes place in a private sound-proof karaoke box with friends (or colleagues) not a public space in front of strangers as in the UK.

Last week saw a night out with friends to one of the ubiquitous karaoke boxes which are generally clustered around train stations in Japan. This reflects the fact that they are a cheap (and warm) place to stay if you've missed your last train (most karaoke boxes close around the time of the first train). There are various chains but the biggest is Big Echo and like many other places this offers a variety of differently decorated rooms, food, percussion instruments, wi-fi, DVD recording, and even cosplay. We paid around \1500 (£10/$14) per person which included free non-alcoholic drinks from a self-service drinks bar and unlimited time, something of a bargain. 

When I first came to Japan, you had to leaf through thick books of songs and then enter the number directly into the machine, but now you simply search and enter a song or artist name (or just a keyword) into an ipad like device (pictured) and you're good to go. There's plenty of English songs too - tens of thousands of songs in fact. At the end of a song you get a kcal score which is apparently the amount of energy estimated to have been used (though for us this seemed totally random!). Japanese friends may ask you to sing your "Number 18" (juhachi-ban =十八番) meaning the song you sing best, so make sure you have one ready! The expression "Number 18" apparently has its roots in kabuki.

A unique and unforgettable feature of Japanese-style karaoke are the videos that play as you sing along. A few songs do have the official video playing but most of the time you will get some terribly corny C-movie-type video playing that (very very) loosely corresponds to the song theme. These videos more often that not seem to be set in the UK and feature "actors" who appear to be randomly recruited passers-by. The fact that there must be a whole cottage industry somewhere that creates plot lines and recruits "actors" for these videos is one of the ongoing mysteries of life in Japan. Nevertheless, the videos add to the whole karaoke experience, an experience which sees normally quiet, shy friends and colleagues transform into screaming frenzied rock 'n' roll stars (usually helped by a beer or three). Vive le rock!

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Tokyo Skytree: The World's Tallest Tower

Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー), located in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, had a shaky start when it opened in 2012, failing to meet initial visitor targets after shutdowns due to bad weather (wind!) and expensive pricing. However, in recent years it has gone from strength to strength and numbers are expected to top 30 million very soon. This doesn't include visitors to Tokyo Skytree town (Solamachi =ソラマチ) a hugely popular commercial complex at the base of the tower full of restaurants, shops, concert spaces, an aquarium, a planetarium, and (at the moment) an ice-rink! See the floor plan here.

The Skytree, at 634 metres, is currently the tallest free-standing broadcasting tower in the world and the second tallest structure, though is not on the list of tallest buildings because it fails to meet the condition of having "continuously occupiable floors." The height itself is well known by most Japanese because the numbers 6, 3, and 4 can be read "mu", "sa", and "shi" the name of the ancient province that includes modern day Tokyo. Ticket prices depend on how high you want to go: it'll cost you ¥2,060 to go up to the Tenbo Deck (340-350m) and another ¥1,030 to go all the way to the Tenbo Galleria (Tenbō Kairō=展望回廊) at between 445-450m. At the moment there is a special asa-wari (朝割) or morning discount deal for weekdays from 8:00 to 9:30am (but these need to be bought in advance).

The lifts are the fastest large capacity lifts in Japan at 600m/minute which will get you to the Tenbo Deck in 50 seconds! Be warned though that you may have to queue a while - however a fast track ticket is available (at a premium price). But if you want to save some money, there is an alternative: the observatory at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku is not quite as high but you can still see Mount Fuji on a sunny day - and best of all it's free!