While Japan might at times seem just to be one concrete jungle, there’s still a lot of nature around and even some cities maintain a rare balance between the forests of old and the convenience (stores) of new. Kyoto is one, where you can walk from Gion to the mountains in a relatively short amount of time.
Wood is of course the consummate Japanese material. It is used traditionally for houses, temples and bridges. However, wood also burns down easily, which is not great in a country prone to earthquakes and natural disasters.
And so, along with the demands of cheaper materials and urban living, wood has been replaced by concrete in most people’s domiciles. However, there are still craftsmen trying to make use of the material in new ways. And the traditional need not preclude the commercial.
Here’s a great example. The Nenrin Mini Healing Speaker is an audio speaker made with genuine Kitayama Kyoto cedar wood allowed to grow for 30 years before harvesting. The name plays on “Nenrin”, meaning growth ring, and the speaker is the result of a five-year development partnership between Kyoto Natural Factory and a Kyoto precious wood dealer.
There are two log designs and colors. You can get either a natural or dark finish, while the Jinshibo version is “treated” and polished, and the Deshibo speaker is 100% natural.
Since the wood is so old, not surprisingly the speakers don’t come cheap. However, knowing your speaker comes from sustainably-harvested materials will give you the moral high ground over your friends and their cheap made-in-China boomboxes, not to mention that this is a real work of art and with the natural materials enhancing the sound quality.
It reminds us of the Bon Bon Sound lacquerware speakers (sadly no longer available) from a few years back that combined superior audio quality with beautiful artisanship.
JR West traditional crafts tourist train gets decorated with Wajima lacquer and Kaga Yuzen kimono dyeing designWritten by: William on July 10, 2014 at 10:56 am | In CULTURE | No Comments
JR West has announced a special new tourism train that will run between Kanazawa and Wakura hot spring in 2015.
Kanazawa, known as a “mini Kyoto”, is the main city in Ishikawa Prefecture, which sticks out on the west coast of Japan in the Hokuriku region. The prefecture is famed for its sushi, kimono dyeing, lacquerware, gold leaf, and other traditional crafts. Along with Kanazawa, another major center for the arts is Wajima, a small city located further along the Noto peninsular.
Not surprisingly then, the new JR West train’s interior and exterior is inspired by the wa and bi (Japanese beauty) of Wajima lacquer and Kaga Yuzen, a local kimono silk fabric dyeing technique (Kaga was the old samurai domain when the Maeda clan ruled Ishikawa before the Meiji Restoration).
The crafts train starts running in October 2015. It has capacity for 52 passengers in two carriages, including private cabins. The carriages are differently designed, either with Wajima lacquer or Kaga Yuzen themes. It will run for around 150 days a year on weekends and holidays.
JR often creates special trains for sightseeing lines. Along with Japanese prefectures’ penchant for yuru-kyara mascots, it is one of the most successful tactics for luring local tourists. They go as much for the experience of the transportation — whether it be kitsch or luxury — as to visit the place itself. JR West also recently teamed up with Sanrio to create a Hello Kitty locomotive for Wakayama Prefecture.
Kanazawa is anticipating a huge boost to its already fairly large tourism industry when the extension of the Shinkansen bullet train from Nagano to Kanazawa opens in spring 2015. While Kansai sightseers can take the Thunderbird express from Osaka to Kanazawa, until now Kanto folk had no equivalent and usually change in Niigata to the slower coastal train that passes down through Niigata, Toyama to Ishikawa. With the Shinkansen, they will be able to take one express from Tokyo straight to Kanazawa.
This article by Yulia Mizushima first appeared on Tokyo Cheapo.
Some outfits never go out of fashion. Kimonos are a prime example – they’ve been making people look elegant for centuries. These stylish rags certainly aren’t cheap though – unless you know where to look…
Kimono girls image via Shutterstock
If you stand in the middle of a scramble at Shibuya crossing, how many internationally-renowned, high-fashion outfits can you spot? I bet it wouldn’t take even a minute to spot at least a dozen without turning your head. Tokyo might be glorified as a fashion capital of the world, but no matter how “it” the handbag or how tailored the suit, chances are there’ll be someone else with the same outfit somewhere nearby. Next time, before you waste money on another unfulfilling retail therapy session, think about checking out your local second-hand kimono shop instead.
In today’s fashion world where unique stands above all, what’s more exclusive than the kimono? Leaders of the time-honored industry have traditionally catered to the status-conscious elite, but modern-day kimono designers and manufacturers are having a hard time selling what typically costs thousands of dollars to anyone who isn’t a refined and wealthy middle-aged Japanese woman. As a result, while most of today’s kimono industry is struggling to stay above water, budget second-hand shops are gaining popularity.
Local furugiya. Image by Chris Gladis, used under a Creative Commons Licence
You can pick up an authentic kimono for $100 or under, if you rustle around the right places. Your local furugiya (the name for a second-hand clothing store) is your first stop when looking for kimonos at an affordable price.
If you don’t know where to look, don’t stress — a lot of second-hand kimono shopping can be done online. Rakuten’s kimono page is a cheap, mix-and-match stop for easy access to inventory from hundreds of shops from all over Japan. it also gives you a quick and informative overlook of the different types of kimono and accessories out there. Random fact — Rakuten apparently is responsible for a full 10% of the kimono industry’s sales these days. Kimonos on Rakuten range from below a hundred dollars up to a couple of thousand — keep an eye out for special deals.
Another competitive option is Ichiroya, an online flea market that sells genuine, family-owned kimonos from Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe, with the goods ranging from vintage to practically new. Their kimonos cost anything from 28 to 1 800 dollars, but most seem to range in the low hundreds. They have a handy Youtube page with short guide videos on kimono purchasing and wearing too.
If you can speak decent Japanese and are more inclined towards brick and mortar shops, any of the numerous Tansuya stores are ideal places to score a routinely-offered discount, as well as face-to-face kimono dressing assistance. A popular chain that sells new and recycled kimonos, Tansuya is a go-to choice for both kimono experts and newbies. Their prices are known to be a bit higher; second-hand kimonos usually cost a couple of hundred dollars, but if you’re just after the experience, you can rent one for around ¥8,000 a day. Depending on the branch, you can complement your shopping by exploring Japanese tea culture at the historic tea house district in Kagurazaka, ride a rickshaw in Asakusa, or do a bunch of equally cool stuff near the 38 other stores scattered around Tokyo.
Inside a kimono shop. Image by Okinawa Soba, used under a Creative Commons licence
Lastly, my favorite second-hand kimono shop is only a five-minute walk away from JR Harajuku Station. The family that has been running Sakaeya for over 50 years is now on Facebook and Tumblr (in English), making their social media a great place to start your kimono quest. The ultimate in cheapo kimono, Sakaeya not only sells second-hand kimono for as low as ¥1,000 (yes, you read that right), they also rent starting at ¥5,000, which includes dressing assistance and a tea ceremony. For a little extra, you can join their dance and photo shoot events as well. Plus, their CEO is an adorable cat named Totoro and their bucho, or department chief, is a raccoon who lives at the nearby Meiji Shrine. Why aren’t you trying on a kimono already?
Ed’s note: Once you’ve got your cheapo kimono, all you need is a sword and bit of bamboo to complete your experience. Death stare optional. Woman in bamboo forest pic via Shutterstock.
Read on Tokyo Cheapo.
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.
Among many English speakers, spoken Japanese is often said to be fairly easy to learn. This is probably because conversational Japanese in large part is a language of omission which doesn’t require one to know much about grammar or sentence structure when communicating with others orally.
Writing Japanese, on the other hand, is incomparably difficult not only for non-native speakers but for the Japanese as well.
Over the past few decades, computers and smartphones have become a major device for communication, depriving us of many opportunities we used to have to handwrite just about anything. But why is it a big deal? For some (myself included), writing by hand Japanese can be an extremely fearful experience because every time we look up a forgotten kanji on the web we are reminded of the painful fact that we are getting dumber and dumber each and every day. Not only does it greatly damage our self-esteem but the latest trends show that being able to write neatly by hand is a valued skill in itself — which is why a penmanship workbook can become a bestseller in this age of digital revolution.
This particular book, Penmanship Practice Book: Become Able to Write Beautifully by Hand in 30 Days by calligrapher Suitou Nakatsuka, promises readers that they will improve their handwriting in a month. They are advised to complete a certain amount of exercise daily, starting from the most basic hiragana.
On the web, there is also this app that helps people practice their handwriting directly with their mobile devices.
First you type to specify any letters or words you want to practice and simply trace them with your finger or a stylus pen. You can also choose between either script (on the left) or cursive (on the right) style.
We should note here, though, that the penmanship (shuji)) practiced in the above book and app is different to calligraphy (shodo), which is considered more of an artistic form of Japanese writing, so there is no cultural value attached to it. Some companies, however, still ask their prospective employees to handwrite their resumes and demand that they be mailed to the office, which creates yet another occasion to showcase one’s handwriting (and by extension, their aptitude) by writing the address on the envelope as well. The assumption here is that one’s personality is somehow reflected in their handwriting.
We know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but what about our handwriting? Does the same lesson apply here as well?
On June 24th, Ashley Madison, the world-famous online dating service for dissatisfied married people — or more bluntly, plain cheaters (wannabes included) — launched a Japanese version of the service, hoping to expand their pool of candidates looking for extramarital relationships on the web. The website already boasts over 19 million registered users, and so far Japan has proven to be a great addition to their list of target countries, with a record of 70,000 members added in just the first four days after the launch.
“Life is short. Have an affair.” So says their marketing slogan. The service itself is specifically targeted at unhappy wives, not husbands, who wish to have a secret affair in lieu of more ethically acceptable (at least traditional) options, such as seeking counseling or separation as a way to save their marriage.
Of course, the above excuse is much more commonly used in the USA and outside of Japan, where the relationship between husband and wife is valued more on the fact that they are attracted to each other as individuals, both emotionally and physically.
In Japan, however, one can easily tell just by hearing how a husband and a wife address each other that once a man and a woman get married and have children, their names automatically get replaced by parenting roles. And in most cases, the expected role of a parent is much more heavily imposed on mothers. Rarely do we hear wives calling their husbands by names when their kids are around. Instead, they would say “Papa” or “Dad” (Otousan) as if to emphasize that their marriage is just another branch of a family tree and not a product of romance. In a way, Ashley Madison seems to have found the right target — the traditionally oppressed wives and mothers who secretly hope to have an affair when divorce is definitely not an option for whatever the reason.
Here’s the app version.
Adultery in Japan, however, seems to be defined largely by whether or not the “affair” is a paid service. “Paid workers are looked down on more than those who give it for free.” I once heard this statement referring to the work of a prostitute, as opposed to someone who engages in sexual intercourse with random strangers without charging a fee. The sex industry in Japan, though, is also built on the balance of supply and demand in which the workers are treated simply as an outlet for sexual drives, which in some cases are deemed morally acceptable, compared to having an extramarital relationship, which is (often) based on emotional attachment — or, let’s call it love.
The most recent scandal in show biz today has revealed another side to adultery in Japan. Mari Yaguchi, a former member of Morning Musume, one of the biggest female idol groups in Japan’s music history, was reportedly caught in bed with another man when her husband, actor Masaya Nakamura, came home unexpectedly at the “wrong” time. The couple has already filed for divorce, yet the speculation over what really happened is still up in the air, as Yaguchi has not made any public appearance or comment since.
Cheating scandals are nothing new in Japan, but there always seems to be something taboo about married women cheating on their husbands. Yaguchi has already been branded with the label of sexually loose, which undeniably makes it more difficult for her to return to show biz even if she ever gets a chance. Women are always expected to take the passive role in almost any form of adultery, whether it be a paid service, a one-night stand or a more long-term relationship.
I can’t imagine an Ashley Madison commercial ever being run in Japan. The implication here is clear that it’s the wife who wants to have an affair, exactly as promoted and advertised by the company.
So the question is, will Ashley Madison be successful here? For men, it probably wouldn’t be as attractive as a more traditional, face-to-face, non-paid (at least there is no third person or matchmaker billing them) relationship. And for women, it would probably be the opposite — they would feel more guilty about the idea of paying (for membership credits on the service).
Let’s just hope that it won’t make headline news, at any rate; Japan has so much more to take care of first.
Raising kids is indeed one of the toughest jobs out there. While parenting entails balancing when to treat and when to reprimand your child (of which I’m sure the latter is much harder), Media Active is now offering a helping hand to parents who just can’t get their kids to behave.
The free smartphone app is called Oni kara denwa (literally, “the call from a demon” — though oni can also be translated as “troll” or “ogre”) and the name alone would surely scare your child enough! The idea is that you get the call and then pass the phone to them, making them listen and stop whining.
Simply choose one from the six most typical child discipline situations — not going to bed, not taking medicine, not tidying up etc — and you’ll then get a call from a variety of scary or authoritarian figures, the most popular of which will surely be the “red demon” (Akaoni).
The only “work” required on your side is to pretend that the call is real by responding. Here’s how the conversation might go.
“Hello? Yes. Oh, it’s the Akaoni. Yes, my child is being very naughty again. Here, you can speak to him.” Cue passing the phone to terrified child!
Actually, we think the visual effect of the Akaoni’s face appearing on the screen is probably more than sufficient to produce total obedience.
There are some other, more benign characters too, such as a doctor and even Santa Claus, though Akaoni will surely be the most popular with parents at a loss with rebellious brats.
The idea of using an ogre, according to the CEO, originated from the character of Namahage, where a man dressed up as an ogre walks into people’s houses on New Year’s Eve to see if there’s any naughty kid around, a traditional ritual in some parts of the Akita prefecture.
While the nature of this practice somewhat reminds me of Father Christmas checking his list every year to see who should get a present (or even European figures like Krampus), Namahage does not reward good kids: their job is simply to punish naughty kids by giving them what could be the most traumatic experience of their childhood. Here’s what namahage looks like in “real life”.
In addition to the red ogre, other scary figures are also on call. You can see the latest versions here.
While some people would definitely argue against the use of non-human beings or even the latest technology in parenting, sometimes one’s goodness comes from the fear of greater forces — after all, that’s how the world works, right?
The Japanese have one of these effortless and inimitable attitudes towards religion.
It is both part of their lives, sort of, in the form of Shinto customs, visiting shrines, animistic “power spots”, good luck charms on mobile phones and local matsuri festivals. But these are essentially communal customs or acts that border more on superstition than “belief”.
Of course there are genuine believers too, especially in Buddhism — and even people who follow cults that carry out sarin gas attacks.
But for the most part religion is there to be charmingly indulged in, rather than frightened of, like in so much of the Judaeo-Christian world.
Could you, say, ever imagine an American comic book writer coming up with Saint Young Men and getting away with it? For the uninitiated, it’s the story of the amusing adventures of the Buddha and Jesus in modern day Tokyo, irreverent but also respectful in a charming way. The very fact that the religious figures have been elevated to such entertaining characters is an act of esteem.
Such a comic (and now feature length anime) would be enough to get you killed in certain parts of the west.
Here’s another great example of what I mean.
The Buddha Hair Salon Flower Pot is a series of Buddha heads in a variety of poses and in which you can grow a plant.
There are three types of facial expressions (laughing, angry, meditating) and two colors (red or white), and after a little bit of watering, the result is visually striking “hair” that sprouts up straight.
Can you imagine selling a plant pot of Jesus or even a Hindu god — and not drawing the ire of an institution or the fire and brimstone of fanatics?
In Japan, whether you’re religious or not, you’re allowed to cultivate the Buddha’s locks in order to make your home greener.
Lanterns in Japan are called chochin and are featured on the front of most izakaya restaurants, as well as shrines. There is a famously huge one, for example, at Kaminarimon (“Thunder Gate”) in Asakusa, Tokyo.
Typically they are red and decorated with the name of the restaurant/temple, and sometimes the type of food being served.
You can also see white or other colored lanterns at shrines and temples, often decorated with the name of the local business that sponsored them.
Meanwhile, a great scheme to increase the consumption of Japan-grown ingredients has seen green lanterns (midori chochin) hanging from the entrance to some izakaya, with stars to indicate how much of their produce comes from local suppliers and farmers.
Well, here’s another smart way to use Japanese lanterns by GOES Inc, this time with traffic signals.
With the Japanese Lantern Signal, now pedestrians can cross the road with a bit of Edo chic.
The designers say that if you mistake the light for a regular izakaya chochin, then you’re already too drunk and it’s time to go home!
On another note, we’ve always loved how traffic signals in Japan feature men with hats. Even the symbol for a pedestrian is a salaryman!