West Meets East: An American in Japan

From Buddhas to ice cream, a Colorado native living in Japan explores the sights and culture of the land of the rising sun.

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My Next Japan Project

By Josiah Lebowitz
Saturday, April 21, 2012

It seems that my work and daily life just won't leave me with the time I need to regularly update this blog right now.  However, that doesn’t mean I’m done writing about Japan.  I’m currently running a Kickstarter drive to fund the creation of a new Japan tour book geared for fans of Japanese anime, manga, and video games.  You can find out more on the Kickstarter project page.


Japanese Holidays

By Josiah Lebowitz
Saturday, November 12, 2011

Like most countries, Japan has a long list of holidays.  Here are brief descriptions of the major ones.  Note that virtually every town and city in Japan also has a local festival or two of its own at some point during the year, but I’ll talk about them another time.

First off, the only US holidays that are widely celebrated in Japan are Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine's, although they're observed a bit differently than in the US or Europe (more on that in a minute).  Holidays like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July naturally aren't celebrated in Japan (or anywhere outside of the US) because they're tied into US history.  I assume Easter is observed by Japanese Christians, but they're a pretty small minority so I'd be surprised if most Japanese people even know what Easter is.

New Years is a major holiday but it's observed differently in Japan than in the US and Europe and it’s kind of an international thing anyway.

Now, for a quick (well, somewhat quick) list of major Japanese holidays.  All holidays on this list, national or not, are widely observed but national holidays are ones officially sanctioned by the government (and ones that many businesses close on).  Non-national holidays are identified as such.  It’s also worth noting that the dates of some of these holidays were changed fairly recently to give people more three day weekends.

New Years Day (late Dec - early Jan):

New Years crowds at a popular shrine.

New Years in Japan is focused more on resting and family than partying. Many people dress in traditional clothes and visit shrines to pray and get their luck predicted for the new year. Traditional foods include special kinds of noodles and mochi (a gluttonous rice substance). Quite a lot of businesses shut down for several days during this period, sometimes starting as early as the 29th or 30th and going till anytime between the 2nd and 4th.  The first week of January, when the stores re-open, is the biggest shopping time of the year, with stores of all types having major sales and selling mystery grab bags containing a random mix of items worth far more than the cost of the bag.

Coming of Age Day (2nd Monday of Jan):

Girls dressed up for Coming of Age Day

This holiday celebrates people who recently turned 20.  These new adults dress up (often in traditional clothing) and attend a speech by city officials about the importance of being responsible individuals.  They then go off to party.

Setsuban (Feb 2):
Setsuban celebrates the start of spring, though it’s not a national holiday. Popular traditions include eating soy beans and throwing them at people wearing oni (monster) masks to chase out evil spirits.

National Foundation Day (Feb 11):
It commemorates the establishment of the nation.  Like Columbus Day, people don’t really celebrate it so much as appreciate the day off.

Valentine's Day (Feb 14):

Valentine's Day Shopping

Though not a national holiday, Valentine’s is quite popular but it works a bit differently than it does in the US.  In Japan, it's a day when women give chocolate to men they like as well as to male friends and coworkers.  There are actually different names used for the chocolate depending on if it's being given in a friendly or romantic spirit.  The nicer the chocolate, the more the girl cares about the guy, with homemade chocolate being the most romantic.

Hinamatsuri (Mar 3):

A large collection of Girls' Day dolls.

Hinamatsuri or Girls’ Day isn’t a national holiday.  On it, girls display a fancy (and expensive) set of dolls.

White Day (Mar 14):
This counterpart to Valentine’s also isn’t a national holiday.  It's Valentine's Day all over again except this time it's the guys' turn to buy things (often candy or jewelry) for the girls that gave them chocolate on Valentine’s.  As an interesting note, the holiday was actually established by Japan's national association of candy makers.

Vernal Equinox (sometime in Mar):
A holiday for the equinox.  There’s no real celebration, but it’s a day off of work/school.

Hanamatsuri (Apr 8):

Hanamatsuri is in the midst of Japan's cherry blossom season.

This Flower Festival celebrates flowers and the birth of Buddha.  It’s not a national holiday.

Golden Week (Apr 29 - May 5):
A week long holiday period encompassing four separate holidays.  School and many businesses close for the entire week.  It’s a very popular time for tourism, with hotels in popular locations often being booked solid months in advance.  The four holidays are as follows:
Showa Day (Apr 29)
It celebrates the birthday of the Showa Emperor.
Constitution Memorial Day (May 3)
It commemorates the Japanese constitution.
Greenery Day (May 4)
More or less equivalent to Earth Day.
Children's Day (aka Boys' Day) (May 5)
This holiday has its own set of dolls different from the Girls' Day ones and is marked by flying large koi shaped streamers.

Tanabata (in Jul or Aug, exact date varies by location):

Fireworks are part of any Tanabata celebration.

The Star Festival.  It’s based on the ancient myth of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair).  People celebrate by having festivals, setting of fireworks, and tying cards with wishes written on them to bamboo stalks.  It’s not a national holiday.

Marine Day (3rd Monday of Jul):
A rather new holiday that celebrates the ocean.

Obon (Jul or Aug 13 - 15 depending on the location, Aug is more common):
Though it’s not a national holiday many businesses still close for Obon.  It's marked by people traveling to their ancestral homes to visit their family tomb and pray to the spirits of their ancestors. The exact celebration details vary by location.

Respect for the Aged Day (3rd Mon of Sept):
The name says it all.

Autumnal Equinox (sometime in Sept):
The counterpart to the Vernal Equinox holiday.

Health & Sports Day (2nd Mon of Oct):
A holiday to promote fitness and personal wellbeing.

Halloween (Oct 30 or 31, some people get the date mixed up):

A Halloween party at a school where I worked.

Halloween isn’t a national holiday and there's no trick or treating or any real celebration (aside from some costume parties).  Halloween decor (ghosts, pumpkins, etc.) and candy are fairly popular though, especially among kids and young adults.

Culture Day (Nov 3):
Culture Day celebrates the Japanese constitution (again) and the Meiji Emperor's birthday.

Labor Thanksgiving Day (Nov 23):
This one is somewhat similar to Labor Day in the US but without any real celebrations or parties.  It has no relation to the US Thanksgiving Day holiday (though Japanese people tend to confuse the two).

The Emperor's Birthday (Dec 23):
The birthday of Emperor Akihito (the current emperor).

Christmas (Dec 24 - 25):
Despite the small amount of Christians in Japan, Christmas is still widely celebrated, though not as a national holiday.  Santa, presents, carols (in Japanese), and lights are all popular but trees are bit less common than in the US and Europe because of the limited space both to grow and display them.  Outside for the aforementioned Christian minority, the holiday is purely secular without nativity scenes, angels, or any references to the birth of Jesus.  Christmas Eve is actually far more popular than Christmas itself and is a very popular time to take your significant other out for a romantic evening.



By Josiah Lebowitz
Sunday, October 30, 2011


To mark the revival of this blog, I’ve decided to talk about one of my favorite places in Japan.
Situated in the mountains northwest of Tokyo, the village of Nikko was built in the late 700’s to be near Rinnoji and Chuzenji temples.  It’s long been a popular tourist spot and features beautiful mountain scenery, onsen, hiking, and some of the country’s most amazing shrines and temples.

Getting There
Because it’s a popular place to visit, getting to Nikko is pretty easy.  You can take a shinkansen (bullet train) straight from Tokyo Station to Nikko or take a cheaper (though slightly slower) limited express from Kitasenju (another train station in Tokyo) to Tobunikko which is only a several minute walk from the main Nikko station.  Or, if you’re really on a tight budget, you can save a few hundred yen (at the cost of an extra 30 minutes or so of travel time over the limited express train) and take a regular train to Utsunomiya then take the Nikko line the rest of the way.

What to See
Nikko biggest draw is its famous shrines and temples though there are many other thing to see in and around the town.  As a note, be prepared to walk a lot while in Nikko.  The buses outside Nikko Station stop near the shrines and some of the other major sites, but you’ll still have to spend a lot of time on foot.
You can grab a nice English map, listing all the major attractions, from the tourist info center at Nikko Station.

Shrines and Temples
Nikko’s famous shrines and temples (remember, temples are Buddhist and shrines and Shinto) are located in a picturesque wooded area a little outside of town.  They’re a pleasant 15 minute or so walk from Nikko Station.  Just follow the main road uphill until you reach Shinkyo Bridge then cross the street and follow the well-marked path.  If you’re in a hurry, or just don’t want to walk any more than necessary, you can take the bus outside Nikko station instead.

Shinkyo Bridge

Either way, you’ll soon end up near Rinnoji Temple.  Your first stop should be the ticket booth.  I recommend getting the combo ticket which will get you into all four shrines and temples for a reasonable price.  Though there are some special areas such as the treasure museum and path to the sacred cat carving that will cost extra.  Clearly marked paths lead through the forest from one building to another so finding your way around shouldn’t be a problem.  Here’s a quick overview of what you can expect to see.

Rinnoji Temple

Rinnoji Temple is a large red building with a number of statues and other items inside.  The most impressive pieces by far are a set of three large and elaborately decorated gold Buddha statues.

Toshogu Shrine

Toshogu Shrine is the most beautiful shrine I’ve ever seen.  A seemingly endless number of elaborate carvings line the walls, all of which are different.

Elaborate carvings at Toshogu

Even the stable is covered with carvings including one which has since become a rather famous icon worldwide…

A very famous carving

Futarasan Shrine is nearly as impressive as Rinnoji or Toshogu, but it’s still a very nice shrine with some interesting artifacts on display including portable shrines that are carried around during festivals and an extremely long sacred sword.

A statye at Rinnoji Taiyuin

Finally, Rinnoji Taiyuin is notable for the statues of various deities at its gates.

Nikko Edo Mura

Nikko Edo Mura

Nikko Edo Mura (aka Nikko Edo Village and Edo Wonderland) is a theme park designed to recreate the look and feel of an Edo period (~1603 – 1868) village.  It’s more of a living history museum than a true theme park so don’t expect any rides, but there’s number of displays about life during the Edo period (including blacksmithing, prisons, and ninja).  Throughout the park, all the employees wear period appropriate costumes and, if you want to match, there’s a rental shop near the entrance if you want to spend your day as a wandering swordsman, geisha, nobleman, or the like.

Oiran Parade

There’s a lot of shows as well, which change throughout the year.  Many of these are fairly historically accurate though the ninja shows are more for fun than anything else.  I’ll note that some of the shows even have audience participation and they love bringing a confused foreigner up on stage.  If that happens to you, just smile and do your best to play along.  You’ll probably have fun.
As a whole, the park is fairly English friendly.  Most of the signs and displays have English translations and you can enjoy the shows even if you can’t understand the actors.  Restaurant menus, however, can be a bit tricky.

Other Attractions

A Formal Imperial Viilla

There’ are a lot of other things to see and do in and around Nikko.  You can tour an old villa that once belonged to the imperial family, which is worth it if you haven’t seen a traditional Japanese house yet.  While there, you can also stroll along a riverside path lined with bakejizo statues or visit the botanical garden.

Bakejizo Statues

Nikko has some waterfalls, onsen, and hiking as well, though if those are what you’re after you’re better off traveling a little further into the mountains to Lake Chuzenji (which I’ll talk about another time).

Shops and Dining
Nikko’s main street (the one leading up from Nikko station to Shinkyo Bridge) is lined with a number of little shops and restaurants.  Nikko’s main specialties are wood carving and lacquer work and you can find a number of beautiful handmade items of all types.
When it comes to food, fish (from mountain lakes and streams) and yuba (a side dish made from tofu skin) are the featured items but if that isn’t too your liking there’s plenty of other things to be found.  One of my favorite places is a tiny yakitori restaurant that’s easy to spot thanks to the large (and somewhat awkwardly worded) English sign in the window.

Nikko’s beautiful mountain setting and elaborate shrines and temples combine to make it one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations and, in my mind, an essential stop for anyone visiting central Japan.  One day will give you enough time to the see the shrines and temples, along with another nearby site or two (such as the imperial villa or botanical gardens) and spend some time browsing the shops.  If you want to stay longer, Nikko Edo Mura can take anywhere from half a day to a full day depending on how much you enjoy the shows and displays and you can easily spend a day or more hiking around the Lake Chuzenji area.  But however long you stay, Nikko is likely to be a highlight of any Japan trip.


I’m Still Here

By Josiah Lebowitz
Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hi everyone.  I just wanted to let you all know that I'm still around and I haven't completely forgotten about this blog.  Life has been pretty busy over the past few months but I think things will be calming down in the coming weeks and one of the things I'd like to do is start posting here again, even if it's only once or twice a week.  So, if all goes well, look for posts to resume again later this month (possibly even later this week).



By Josiah Lebowitz
Sunday, April 10, 2011

Proper manners in Japan are a bit different than they are in the US. For example, it's perfectly ok to sniff loudly if your nose is stuffed up, slurp your soup (which you can drink right out of the bowl) and noodles, and put your elbows on the table. Also, you don't see many people opening doors or giving up their seats on trains for women and the elderly; it does happen, but you don't see it as much as you do in the US. Though there are some things, such as not spitting on the street, that are the same in both countries. But if you want to display proper manner in Japan, here's some things to get you started.

 Many Japanese buildings have an entry area where you leave your shoes.

1. Always take off your shoes at the proper locations. When entering houses, apartments, many shrines, some museums and restaurants, and random other buildings there will be a place to take off your shoes (usually a raised area), which you often swap for a pair of slippers of some sort. Note that, before stepping on tatami (woven straw) mats, you're supposed to take the slippers off as well.

2. Don't leave your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice. They do that in funeral services so it's considered back luck to do it at other times. Lay your chopsticks to the side or on the lip of the bowl instead.

3. Don't use the little hand towel you get at restaurants on anything other than your hands and don’t use it as a napkin either. It's only for cleaning your hands before eating.

4. Don't point, ever. If you absolutely have to use your hands to indicate something, do it with more of a wave.

5. Don't blow your nose in public. Even if you have a tissue or handkerchief, it is considered very rude. Sniffing, however, is fine.

6. Don't brag and accept praise only reluctantly (usually after denying it two or three times). In fact, to be fully proper you should tend to play down your accomplishments, company, and family, any gift you're giving, etc until you’re forced to reluctantly accept that they're not quite as bad as you're making them out to be. Basically, play down anything that makes you look good and play up things that make the other person look good so you're praising each other, not yourselves). The one partial exception to this is things like job interviews.

7. If you know some Japanese, always use polite speech until you know enough to understand when it's ok to use informal speech (I’ll explain the difference in a future post). Even then, error on the side of caution.

When visiting someone's home, be sure to bring a proper gift.

8. If you get invited to someone's house, bring a gift (nicely wrapped if at all possible). Food or flowers are generally the most appropriate gifts. If you receive such a gift, don't open it right away unless the giver asks you to. Open it later when the giver isn’t around instead. Or, at very least, ask permission before opening it. The reason for this is so that, if you don’t like the gift, the giver won’t see your disappointment.

9. At parties, don't fill your own glass, fill the glasses of those sitting next to you and they'll fill yours in turn.

10. Avoid public displays of affection. Holding hands is ok, but things like hugging and kissing in public are heavily frowned upon.

11. Don't say "no". Not that you can't refuse a request or answer a question in the negative, but Japanese people go to great pains to do so without ever actually saying no. Unsurprisingly, this can be very confusing for people with a limited grasp of the Japanese language.

Foreigners don't need to worry about many of these issues, unless they want to act Japanese.

Note that, as a foreigner, you can pretty much ignore numbers 6 and 11 unless you're really trying to sound and act Japanese. If you don't really know any Japanese you can safely screw up 7 without offending anyone but, as all the Japanese words and phrases you're likely to find in a travel book and beginning Japanese classes are in polite form, it shouldn't come up. As for the rest of these points, you'll usually be forgiven (or at least overlooked) if you make mistakes here and there so long as you're doing so accidentally and not purposely ignoring them. The only one you really have to watch out for is 1, as wearing shoes wear you’re not supposed to (especially on tatami mats) is a major taboo.

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