This article by Frances Maeda first appeared on Tokyo Cheapo.
Make the most of the pleasant weather in Tokyo this March and April with Tokyo Cheapo’s guide to the best festivals and flowers. This is the first installment of a new bi-monthly events wrap where Tokyo Cheapo will be giving you the lowdown on what’s on (and cheap) in the coming months.
1. Hanami: Late March to Early April
For some, it’s the reason they come to Japan — to contemplate the transience of life while gazing at the cherry blossoms coloring the landscape pink. For others, it’s an opportunity to get drunk in a poetic setting. And yet for others, it’s a bit of both. Whatever you’re into, cherry blossom season is traditionally celebrated with chilled picnics under the trees, while the petals fall around you. The parks of Ueno and Sumida are popular spots for these hanami parties, as is the Chiyoda area (around the Imperial Palace) — you can even boat around the moat there. Rikugien, known for its “weeping” cherry trees, is worth a visit too.
When: Late March – Early April. You can check the sakura forecast (in Japanese) here.
2. Anime Japan 2014 (March 22nd and 23rd)
As the website says, “Here is everything about anime”. A dream come true for any self-respecting otaku, it’s two full days of all things Japanese animation. You’ll have a chance to see the newest anime, as well as enjoy screenings of classic titles. There will also be exhibitions, talks, music, all sorts of other stage events, seminars on the business side of things, and stuff you can buy. And did we mention the cosplay?
When: 22-23 March. Where: Tokyo Big Sight, East Exhibition Hall. Ariake, Koto-ku.
3. Mt Takao Fire-Walking Festival (March 9th)
You know those stories of monks walking barefoot across scorching coals? You can see that first-hand (and maybe try it too) at the Mt Takao Hiwatari Festival. Hotfoot it to Yakuouin Temple on Tokyo’s most popular mountain (less than an hour from Shinjuku) to experience the haunting sounds of conch shells, Buddhist prayers and fire (lots of it). When the flames have subsided, the monks cross the burning embers — said to be part of a path to an ultimately peaceful and enlightened existence.
More details here.
4. Kamakura Festival (April 13th to 20th)
The city of Kamakura (the one with the giant Buddha statue) in Kanagawa Prefecture was the political centre of Japan in the 12th century, and it’s hailed as the birthplace of samurai culture — giving it instant cool cred. Just an hour away from Tokyo, it’s a great spot to visit — especially during the Kamakura Matsuri (Festival). Held at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, there will be music, dance performances (on the first Sunday of the festival), mikoshi (portable shrines) and — the highlight — horseback archery (on the second Sunday). This style of archery dates back to medieval times and is said to have been used as a brain training technique for the samurai.
More details here.
5. Kanamara Penis Festival (April 6th)
What would the fertile season be like without a fertility festival? Except that, contrary to appearances, this festival is not exactly about that. The “Festival of the Steel Phallus” is held at Kanayama Shrine — where prostitutes apparently used to pray for protection from STIs, back in the day. The spot also came to be associated with prayers for prosperity, easy births and happy marriages. The festival is a celebration of all things penile (never thought we’d use that word in an article), with a big pink penis that gets paraded around, penis-shaped snacks and decorations, and even carved veggies. You’ll never look at pumpkin the same way again.
More details here.
Read on Tokyo Cheapo.
Pink Tokyo starts today, Japan’s first major adult expo. Despite a name which might be mistaken for a gay parade event at first glance (pinku in Japanese always implies porn, as in pinku eiga), this is a decidedly heterosexual event… and what an event it is!
Featuring showcases of adult industry products, appearances by both male and female performers from Japan’s booming porn world, as well as a host of “Gravure idol” models, we are also very excited about the “Eroticism Art Exhibition” section that promises to introduce erotic artworks.
The concept behind Pink Tokyo is “a robust adult/’sexy’ industry will invigorate adults and energize Japan”. We couldn’t agree more. Forget “cool Japan”. How about “hot Japan”? After all, this is the country that gave the world Orient Industry — sex dolls so realistic that even Lady Gaga got one made in her image — and Tenga, the most stylish sex toys we’ve ever seen.
It is often said that Japan has proportionately the largest porn industry in the world. With the 2020 Olympics approaching, there are various rumors flying around that Tokyo will try to introduce regulations to try to clean up areas like Kabukicho or the very generous selection of porn rags you can find in any convenience store.
But, as Pink Tokyo, say, there is “no need to hide. Concealing what it means to be adult leads to misunderstandings for children.” This is the adult industry fighting back against the threat of government encroachment in an extravaganza that celebrates adulthood. “By bringing a breath of fresh air to society, we aim to cultivate a free and sophisticated industry and raise the industry’s status.”
While there are many major adult expos overseas, Japan, despite the scale of its porn business (not to mention the immensely visible sex industry), has never had a fully comparable event on a regular basis. There have been large adult events before. We still have fond memories of Adult Treasure Expo AET at Makuhari Messe in 2007, where Tenga debuted its Flip Hole sex toy, which went on to be a mega hit worldwide. Tenga itself has organized many other events in the years since, including art exhibitions and even music nights at the club Womb in Shibuya.
If the promo video is anything to go by, Pink Tokyo is set to chase and kidnap slightly overweight salaryman, and rescue them from their dull lives!
Pink Tokyo starts today and runs until Sunday March 2nd and is open to the general public.
Organizers are expecting 30,000 visitors over the three days at the Differ Ariake venue in Odaiba. Tickets on the door cost ¥3,000; you can get a discounted “couples’ ticket” (i.e. a boy and a girl) for ¥5,000.
It’s no secret that we hate the policy that many Japanese hotels, hot springs, pools and beaches have regarding tattoos (irezumi or shisei).
The out-dated custom bans inked visitors from either enjoying their facilities or at least displaying their tattoo(s) while doing so. Ostensibly it is to show that the facilities do not accept Yakuza (gangsters) on their premises, since Yakuza are famous for their tattoos (similarly to the Russian mafia).
However, the Yakuza do go to baths which they control — or even if they don’t own it, the staff would be far too scared to actually try to prevent a gangster from jumping into the tub. So this rule ultimately only affects and inconveniences ordinary people.
More and more Japanese people have tattoos as their stigma and criminal association has decreased over the years. And of course, many foreigners with no background in Japan will innocently believe they can enjoy the waters at a famous hot spring or deluxe hotel without the need to worry about the artistic ink on their body. This frequently leads to so-called “cultural clashes” between fussy members of staff and bemused tourists.
The rules have to change. It’s not “Japanese culture” and is not a reflection of contemporary society.
One indication that it’s not only foreigners who bang on about this problem is Tattoo Spot, a website that introduces bathing facilities and tells you where tattoos are accepted. At time of writing there are over 900 listings, all user-sourced and regularly updated.
You can search by region or by facility type. There are listings for onsen (hot springs), saunas, sento (public baths), swimming pools, tanning salons, gyms and hotels.
The rating system is neat. There is a measly one star for places that refuse customers with tattoos; two stars is where they say you cannot enter even though there are actually many tattooed guests; three stars means it’s okay with a tattoo as long as you hide it; four stars is “case-by-case”; and the full five stars are awarded to forward-thinking places that do not care if you have a tattoo or not.
While the site is only in Japanese, no doubt non-speakers can get by with a browser translator tool.
[Hat tip to Metropolis]
Girls with guns? Sounds like a cheap porno but this is actually a minor fashion craze right now, thanks to SG-Fashion-Snap.com, which is collating images of male and female participants in Airsoft (called “survival game” in Japan), all decked out in their camouflage, gear and, of course, weaponry.
“Make yourself look neat even when you are in the combat,” says the “survival game fashion snap” website. Street snaps have been a fixture of the Japanese fashion publishing (print and digital) for years now and this is an esoteric twist on that.
As with usual street snaps, these gun-toting ladies come with information on their name age, occupation, “career” (surely as a survival gamer), team name and favorite brand.
We love how this is both tough, cute and stylish at the same time. Never have girls in tactical boots looked this good.
Not to be outdone, there are plenty of guys too. The men also like to differentiate their style of combat gear (“Arabic”, “SEALS” etc).
And for the armaments purists out there, SGFS even features very indulgent snaps just of the guns!
We wonder if the Self-Defense Force is on a recruitment drive right now?
Scottish beer brand BrewDog is set to open its own bar in Roppongi from March 1st.
BrewDog Roppongi will offer ten beers on tap — six standards and four seasonal brews — plus a further ten guest beers from the UK, Japan and around the world. The bar, managed by BrewDog Japan, will also be decked out using furnishings procured from the same supplier as BrewDog UK uses.
This comes amid a flurry of new craft beer and micro brewery bar openings in the Tokyo area over the past few years. Although the actual number of craft beers and smaller breweries hasn’t itself increased much (or at all) since its peak in the early 1990′s, there has been a major boom in bars. Many of these are managed or staffed by foreign residents.
While drinkers often decry the decline in beer standards in Japan, the rise of the craft beer bars shows that consumers are willing to pay more for quality beer (in larger servings than regular beer anyway) in the right environment.
Single craft beer brand bars are also itself not without precedent. For example, there is the wildly popular Yona Yona Beer Kitchen, which opened in Akasaka-mitsuke in October 2013 and serves only Yona Yona beers from Karuizawa. These include the eponymous Yona Yona Ale, Tokyo Black and Aooni, plus seasonal specials.
While this is BrewDog’s fist Asian venture, the beer’s connections to Japan are already quite firm, not least because it brews an imperial stout called Tokyo that is a very nice oaky sud (and strong). You can already get BrewDog on tap at places like the snug Beer Pub Camden in Ikebukuro, as well as in bottle form from Tanakaya at Mejiro Station. BrewDog sales doubled in Japan between 2011 and 2012.
BrewDog also already has several specialist bars around the UK as well as in Stockholm last year. A bar in Sao Paulo also opened in early 2014. Its current expansion is backed in part by the firm’s successful Equity for Punks crowdfunding scheme that was massively oversubscribed.
“Launching bars outside of Europe is a huge step towards taking the craft beer revolution global,” BrewDog co-founder James Watt told BBC Scotland in December.
“The craft beer scene has really blown up in some unexpected destinations in recent years and it’s amazing how people from around the world have taken to a small brewery from Aberdeen. Three years ago we never imagined we’d now be planning to open a bar in Tokyo or Sao Paulo, and it’s a testament to the passion and loyalty of our beer fans and Equity Punks.”
We love BrewDog for its pop bottle design and its tongue-in-cheek approach to naming; Punk IPA, Dead Pony Club and Dogma are just some of their wittily denominated range.
BrewDog was founded in Scotland in 2007 and currently exports 62% of its beer to 32 countries around the world.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum has demanded the removal of an artwork that criticizes the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by members of the Japanese government.
The exhibition is now running, set to conclude on February 21st. It not one of the main exhibition events organized by the museum but part of its public galleries that often feature group shows. The exhibition features around 60 works of art presented by the Contemporary Japanese Sculpture Artist Federation.
One of these is “Portrait of the Times: Endangered Species, idiot Japonica Tomb” by Katsuhisa Nakagaki. The sculpture (pictured below) is a 1.5 meter dome shape draped in a Japanese flag, with pieces of paper on it with political messages written by hand urging the Constitution to be protected, the “folly” of the visits to Yasukuni to be recognized, and the ending of the current government’s “rightist tendencies.”
[Image via Asahi]
The visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine — a shrine in central Tokyo that houses the souls of the war dead, including convicted war criminals — has been a fiercely contested issue in Japan over the previous ten years. Shinzo Abe’s government has re-opened the wounds by officially visiting the shrine, drawing furious responses from Japan’s neighbors in Asia who suffered at the hands of the nation’s past colonialism.
The museum, though, has decided that it cannot allow its facilities to be used for “political activities”. It requested Nakagaki to remove the artwork on February 16th, one day after the exhibition began, and threatened him that if he did not agree, the whole exhibition would be cancelled and possibly prevented from future use of the museum’s facilities.
As a compromise on his part, Nakagaki has removed the handwritten political message. “I expressed my ideas as an artist. I sense the danger of speech control,” he was quoted as saying in media reports. This may not be enough to satisfy the museum, though… or the prime minister.
Japan is a country that seems to inspire more than its far share of stereotypes and myths. The overseas media is also complicit in perpetuating many of the images of Japan that make it seem weird, exotic and unfathomable. What irk the most are the ones that mold Japan as a nation of wackos with bizarre tastes in fashion, beauty, sex and entertainment. This isn’t just Japan; the western media continually likes to mock and belittle Asian countries. Would Psy have been such a hit if there hadn’t been a “weird dance” (actually originally very tongue-in-cheek)?
Here are five we particularly dislike and feel are wrong (in whole or in part), and also harmful and patronizing.
Yes, there are mascots — lots of them.
The Self-Defense Force has them, as does the police and even the Japanese Communist Party. Some days it feels like you can’t get away from mascot characters, on TV, advertising or merchandise. But that doesn’t mean people are stupid or only interested in something because of a mascot.
Mascot culture has been a big success story for regional tourism, hence why it has become something of a phenomenon in recent years. This is a fascinating social development and offers lessons in tourism. But also don’t confuse it with the idea that everyone in Japan walks around with mascot toys in their bags.
A nation of geeks
This links in with the mascot thing. Sure, manga and anime are popular here. hHwever, one of the biggest mistranslations and inaccurate use of language concerns the idea of “subcultures”. If we had a yen for every time we saw the words “anime subculture” in Japanese or English. More often than not, it’s being used incorrectly. What’s important here is how manga and anime are indeed mainstream — but in the sense that cartoons and comics are part of popular culture in America too. No one calls American geeks because of how successful “The Avengers” was, right? But the movie was seen by thousands of non-fans too.
What has changed in recent years is that certain types of manga and anime have risen in status — by which we mean subcultural content previously associated mostly with hardcore fans, especially science fiction. However, manga and anime itself is not a subculture. Quite the opposite: they are part of pop culture. So just because they are a visible element in Japan, it cannot be correlated solely with “geeky” culture.
The difference is that there is a whole wealth of anime and manga that can be enjoyed by adults too, not to mention the tens of thousands of titles specifically meant for older audiences (and we don’t mean “adult content” either). This is like how there are graphic novels and the likes of Robert Crumb in America, plus a quality Pixar animation is entertaining for all ages.
That’s what’s interesting; not that everyone in Japan is an otaku because they read comics even after the age of 18, but that there are comics that cater to predilections that go way beyond superheroes. If you look at the annual list of bestsellers, Japan has some of most varied reading tastes. What was the biggest box office hit recently in Japan? Yes, it was an anime. But it was Studio Ghibli’s “The Wind Rises”, which frankly is as mainstream as any Disney picture.
What makes us doubly angry is that “Cool Japan” is also getting it wrong, promoting a subculture — something for a select taste — as representative of all that’s good about Japan. And so we have embarrassments like AKB48 (not even a true example of genuine otaku culture anymore) performing at the ASEAN gala banquet.
We have been guilty of helping with this myth ourselves. Sure, there are some bizarre beauty gadgets in Japan. But they are genuine skincare and health tools, no matter how odd the pictures sometimes look. From electric nose-lifters to face sliming mouthpieces, there is a whole pantheon of frankly visually alarming gadgets out there. But we actually think these are pretty amazing and not just to be scoffed at.
Either way, they are unusual items that are used by a minority of people. It’s not the case that everyone women is walking around with wacky mouthpieces jutting out of their jaws in a quest to retain their youthful beauty.
And at the end of the day, the beauty trends that should really be grabbing the headlines are the amazing quality of Japanese cosmetics and make-up, from Shiseido to Kanebo and shu uemura.
The catalog of articles here would be notorious and too long to list, but the perennial claim is one of two extremes or even both at the same time: the Japanese are not interested in sex anymore, and/or they are super kinky and like to get their kicks at strange fetish clubs or through 2D characters.
There are extremes in every culture and we love how Japan, free of the notion of original sin and other moral hangups in the monotheistic world, is able to find a way for more unusual sexual customs to exist alongside the so-called mainstream. But they are just that: fringe elements. As healthy and often refreshing (if mind-boggling) as they are, the majority of men in Japan are not interested in pursuing anime girls or even Akihabara “idols”.
And we find it laughable this image that young people are not interested in sexual relations (any reporter who writes an article on this should go and visit a college campus or nightclub).
Japan is prohibitively expensive
Not so “wacky” this one but we still hate it always gets rolled out as a stereotype to explain how “opaque” and formiddable the lifestyle in Japan — especially Tokyo — is. Japan is not expensive. Sure, if you take the average apartment in America and Europe and compare it to a similar size in Tokyo, it will seem crazy. But no one lives like that. Things are compact in Japan (not small, compact) and you have to adjust your scale a little. In fact, it is far more affordable to live alone in Tokyo and go out for meals on a very regular basis than other cities.
What is expensive? Up-front fees for apartments, though this has improved recently. Some fruit and vegetables. Hostess clubs. Shinkansen bullet train tickets.
Everything else is pretty reasonable, not least because consumption tax is relatively low (it’s going up this spring, though) and prices have hardly changed in over ten years (the up side of the “Lost Decade”). You can shop at UNIQLO et al if you are on a budget and there is a host of great eating-out options for as little as ¥1,000-¥2,000 yen for a nice meal. Try getting an apartment for one, paying for daily transport costs, utility bills and going out half a dozen times a week in New York or a major European city… and then you’ll see what we mean.
And if don’t believe us, head over to Tokyo Cheapo for some tips on enjoying yourself in Japan on a budget.
It’s Valentine’s Day in Japan (and it’s snowing again too).
While in Japan famously it’s actually the custom for the girls to give a gift on February 14th, with the men giving something on March 14th (called, obliquely, White Day), either way, today is a day for couples.
Here’s some tips from JapanTrends about how to spend the day with your special someone.
Almost a cliche, many couples head to the 333-meter-tall Tokyo Tower to climb to the viewing platform, snuggle up close and enjoy the view. However, on bad weather (like today), the viewing platform may be closed.
Other options include the Tokyo Skytree, the Park Hyatt Tokyo, or any of the restaurants in the Sumitomo Building in west Shinjuku, all of which accord fantastic views of the city at night. You could also go the Roppongi Hills, since there is at least one part of the complex near the Roku Roku Plaza where you can pose for pictures against a backdrop of the famous red tower.
It’s also very common to go on a date to an aquarium, not least because the darkened spaces offer ways for shyer couples to cuddle or hold hands in public.
We recommend Sumida Aquarium (Skytree), Sunshine Aquarium (Ikebukuro), Tokyo Sealife Aquarium (near Tokyo Bay), Epson Aqua Stadium (Shinagawa), or the Kaiyukan (Osaka).
This is more a duty than a genuine gift, though your partner will be thrilled if you can get something which isn’t just the well-known brands. However, offices will customarily organize mass chocolate-giving to colleagues, in which case it is usually fine just to resort to basic chocolates like Tirol.
Godiva used to be THE chocolates that people would try to get for Valentine’s Day. Recently, though, Godiva has opened so many branches around Japan that its value is far less prestigious. This means you will have to search a bit more around the department store food halls for something special that will impress your loved one.
Another tradition is to finish off your date with a trip to one of Japan’s many love hotels. This is a necessity if you or your partner still live with their family (common in Japan for many people even in their twenties or thirties), though it’s also fun just to go sometimes even if you actually have your own apartment, since the beds and baths are big.
Areas like Shibuya, Ebisu, Shinjuku and Ikebukuro all have their own love hotel districts, though some are sleazier than others (Ikebukuro and Shinjuku’s are particularly notorious for existing primarily as facilities for business transactions to take place rather than romance). It’s best to avoid the rather run-down hotels in Uguisudani and Ueno if you want to give off an aura of classiness.
Be warned. You may have to wait till you can get a room. You also defy convention and head to the love hotel before dinner to avoid the rush.
While taking a day off and heading to a hot spring resort may not be practical for everyone, you can still get an onsen experience inside a big city at one of the “super spas”. The easiest choices are Oedo Onsen Monogatari out in Tokyo Bay or Spa World in Osaka. Of course, it’s best to also stay overnight.
And if you have any more tips, feel free to share them with us in the comments.
Japanese drivers will be celebrating the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on their cars with special license plates.
All the boxes have been ticked here. Mt Fuji? Yes. Cherry blossom? Yes. Perhaps the only stereotypically “Japanese” image that is missing is a geisha.
If the 1964 Olympics are anything to go by, design should be paramount to the Games… and design also means merchandising. Get ready for mountains of toys, stationery, souvenirs, memorabilia and more… all with the Olympic logo.
The announcement of the special car license plates is merely the first step towards the national fanfare with which the Games will be prepared. Apparently it is the first time such a special car license plate will be made in Japan; they are usually very simple affairs in Japan. However, the images shown in this news report are only suggestions based on what officials have described. No formal designs have been released yet.
While we are certainly curious to see what the official mascot and logo design will be like, things don’t bode too well for the mentality of the Games organizers, though.
The executive committee behind the Games is populated almost entirely by men of pensioner age.
Former Prime Minister Yoshi Mori (76) is one of the most senior — both in rank and age. He recently made a real gaff — in a long career of gaffs — by giving World War Two as a reason why he never learnt English, despite being the head of state of the world’s second biggest economy at the time. He had been asked at a news conference if only-Japanese-speaking men all of a certain age was the right image to give out at such an international and prestigious event as the Olympics.
“I was in second grade when the war ended and until then, English was considered the enemy’s language,” Mori apparently said.
Well, I hope he leaves his weapons at home come 2020′s opening ceremony.