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.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
While Shibuya and Harajuku are fine if you’re chasing the latest teen fashions, Ginza is the place to go when you’re looking for something more high-class and refined. Clothing, jewelry and accessories dominate but you’ll find high-end and restaurants of all kinds. Much like New York City, London, and Paris, Ginza is where the big labels from all over the world have their stores. If it’s fancy, fashionable, and suitably expensive, you’ll find it here. If you’re more interested in touring than shopping, Ginza has a few things to offer as well, including Tokyo’s main kabuki theater.
Like most major sections of Tokyo, Ginza is very easy to reach, with several subways (including the Hibiya Line and Ginza Line) stopping there. Any of the exits will let you out onto Ginza’s main road and from there it’s just a matter of walking up and down the street until you find what you’re looking for.
What to See
If you don’t like shopping for, or at least looking at, fancy clothes, jewelry, and the like, there may not be much to interest you in Ginza, but if you do, you could easily spend a day there. The giant department stores such as Matsuya are worth a look either way, at least to marvel at the sheer size of them and the variety of items they have on sale. Ginza has lots of great restaurants as well. They tend to be on the expensive side, though many have more reasonably priced lunch specials for those who want to eat fancy food without breaking the bank.
Shopping in Ginza
There are big fancy stores all up and down the main road and many of the side streets. Just keep an eye out for the signs. You’ll probably have more fun browsing at random than just following a list. While plenty of big name US and European clothing and jewelry brands have shops in Ginza (just name one, it’s probably there somewhere), be sure to check out the Japanese stores as well. You may even find a new favorite. It’s also useful to note that for purchases over 1000 Yen (around $100) many stores have a service counter where tourist visa holders can go to get a 5% duty free refund.
If clothes aren’t your thing, there’s a couple of fancy book, music, and electronic stores scattered about and the Sony store has a showroom where you can check out many of their upcoming products. The big Japanese department stores are also fun to browse thanks to their massive size and diverse selection. While you’re at it, be sure to check out their food markets (usually in the basement) and food courts (usually on the top floor).
Kabuki theater is one of Japan’s traditional performing arts (which I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post) where male actors wear elaborate costumes and act out famous scenes from Japanese history and mythology. It’s all in Japanese, of course, but you can rent excellent English audio guides that are synced with the performance and not only translate the dialogue, but offer background information on the story as well. If you want to experience a bit of traditional Japanese culture, kabuki is a great way to do so. Tokyo’s main kabuki theater is right on Ginza’s main road, though it’s being rebuilt right now so performances are currently held elsewhere. Check their English web site http://www.shochiku.co.jp/play/kabukiza/theater/ for the current performance schedule and information on how to buy tickets (which should be purchased in advance).
If you’re a serious Beatles fan, you can stop by the café that John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to frequent. It’s a nice little place right on the Ginza’s main road, but if The Beatles angle doesn’t appeal to you, you can find much cheaper coffee elsewhere.
I’ve spent much less time in Ginza than many other parts of Tokyo since my interest in fashion (especially expensive fashion) is very low, but overall, if you’re crazy about high fashion Ginza can easily become one of the highlights of your stay in Tokyo. But if you’re not, an hour or two spent marveling at the huge stores and bright lights (perhaps before taking in a kabuki performance) should be more than enough time for a quick visit.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Shibuya and Harajuku are the trendy fashion setting areas of Tokyo. If you want to check out the latest (and strangest) fashions, find the hottest new CDs, or just learn more about the latest big trend among young people, this is where you want to go. While Shibuya features large fancier stores, Harajuku is all about narrow streets and tiny shops crammed with all sorts of interesting clothing accessories. For those not interested in shopping, you can also pay a visit to Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Jingu Shrine.
If you just want to walk around both areas and take in the major sights, plan for two or three hours depending on how fast you go. But if you want to browse the stores and maybe find some new outfits, you could easily spend the better part of a day there.
Many of Shibuya’s biggest shops and attractions are near Shibuya Station, which is located on a large number of train lines (including the Yamanote loop) and several subway lines (including the Ginza line which also stops at other major destinations such as Ginza, Ueno, and Asakusa). From Shibuya Station, you can easily walk north to Yoyogi and Harajuku though both have stations of their own on the Yamanote line as well.
What to See
While the shops are usually the main draw, there are several major attractions in the area and, even if you have no interest in fashion, Harajuku is still worth a quick visit just to see some of the crazy outfits people wear. There’s a few small museums in the area as well, though unless you’re especially interested in their particular focus (such as tabaco, ukiyoe (Japanese wood block print art), or Japanese swords) you’re better off visiting larger more general museums like the ones in Ueno.
As long as you’re at Shibuya Station, you should make a quick stop at the Hachiko statue which can be found right outside of the station’s appropriately named Hachiko exit. The statue is a popular meeting place and anime and game fans may recall it from various titles such as The World Ends With You (which takes place in a fairly accurate recreation of the Shibuya / Harajuku area). But who is Hachiko? Hachiko is, or rather was, a dog who belonged to an old man back in the early 1900’s. Every day, the man would take the train from Shibuya station to work and every day Hachiko would sit there waiting for him to return. After his owner died, Hachiko continued to wait at the station for him for years until he too passed away. The local residents were so impressed with Hachiko’s devotion that a statue was erected in his honor. While the statue itself isn’t all that impressive, it’s right outside the station and makes for a good photo op.
Shopping in Shibuya
From the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station, you can easily see a number of the area’s major stores such as Shibuya 109 (a large clothing store) and it’s only a short walk to the rest such as Tower Records’ anchor store. Like most areas in Tokyo, if you’re there to shop I think it’s a lot more fun to wonder around a bit and see what you find than to just have a checklist of stores to visit. You never know what you’ll find and it’s often the smaller less obvious shops which have the best deals.
A short walk (or even shorter train ride) North from Shibuya Station will bring you to Yoyogi Park. Likes Ueno Park, it’s a large sprawling area of covered with grass, forests, ponds, and pathways instead of a little patch of grass with a swing set like many US parks. Personally, I think Ueno Park is the nicer of the two, but Yoyogi Park hosts a number of festivals and events and can provide a nice break if you’re tired of walking through tall buildings.
Shopping in Harajuku
If you keep walking North from Shibuya Station on the East side of Yoyogi Park (or just take the Yamanote line train), you’ll reach Harajuku, home of Meiji Jingu Shrine (which I’ll talk about shortly) and the latest in teen fashions. Meiji Dori (the large road running roughly North/South through the area) features some larger more popular shops such as The Oriental Bazaar (a good, though somewhat expensive, place to buy souvenirs), Laforet (a large clothing mall of sorts), and Kiddy Land (a toy store).
But the places you really want to visit in Harajuku are the little streets directly across the street (East) of Harajuku Station such as Takeshita Street and Cat Street, where you’ll find an endless array of small stores dedicated to a diverse array of fashions ranging from chic to bizarre. A few of the popular styles that really stick out are Lolita (think 1800’s European high class with puffy dresses, lace, and frills), Goth (black, red, and lots of skulls), Lolita Goth (Lolita style clothes with a Goth color scheme), and punk rock, but that’s only scratching the surface and Tokyo’s fashion trends change rapidly.
As a warning, Takeshita Street and the other small shopping streets in Harajuku become insanely crowded on weekends, to the point where you can do little except go along with the flow. Though weekends are also the best time to spot young men and women decked out in their most daring and elaborate outfits. If you get tired of braving the crowds, a good (and much less packed) place to people watch is by the bridge to Meiji Jingu Shrine (see below) which is immediately south of Harajuku Station (to your right as you exit the station).
Meiji Jingu Shrine
The Meiji Jingu Shrine was built to honor the Meiji Emperor. He’s the emperor who helped reform Japan’s government and bring it up to speed with the modern world shortly after Perry opened up the country. He’s one of the most popular emperors and, as such, his shrine gets quite a lot of visitors. The shrine itself isn’t overly impressive (though it’s one of the fancier shrines within Tokyo itself) but it’s set in its own section of Yoyogi Park and the surrounding grounds are a popular picnic spot. There’s also a treasure museum containing lots of paintings of and items owned by the emperor.
To get to the shrine, go to your right (South) immediately after exciting Harajuku Station, turn right, cross the bridge, and follow the crowds down the path beneath the giant tori gate.
Since I’m not much for fashion, Shibuya and Harajuku have never been my favorite parts of Tokyo but I have to admit that people watching, especially around Harajuku, can be a lot of fun. Depending on your interests, I’d say that the area is definitely worth anything from a short visit to a full day as part of any Tokyo trip.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, March 7, 2011
Sorry about all the missed days last week. While I actually did have internet access during my trip, I had very little time to actually write anything. But now I’m back it’s time for part 2 of my entry on the Japanese School System.
Junior high in Japan covers grades 7 – 9 (though here kids are called first, second, and third year junior high school students). Like elementary, junior high is mandatory and, unless their parents opt for a private school, kids attend the junior high school closest to where they live.
Subjects pretty much stay the same as in elementary, but tests are harder and there’s more homework. Students also have a lot less recess time. Clubs begin to become a more important (and time consuming) part of many students’ lives and cover an extremely broad range of hobbies from sports and music (in Japan, school sports teams and bands are actually student clubs) to anime and mystery novels.
Junior high is also when most students start wearing school uniforms or seeraafuku (sailor clothes), so called because their basic design is based on US navy uniforms. Each school has their own unique uniform and, if you’re familiar with an area, it’s very easy to tell at a glance what school a kid attends by looking as his/her uniform. The typical boys uniform usually consists of dark slacks, a belt, a white button down shirt, a dark tie, and a blazer or coat of some kind. Girls, meanwhile, get long socks (usually either white or dark blue / black), a dark skirt (generally ending a little above their knees), and sailor style blouse (usually white) with a short tie. They may also get a dark sweater or blazer to wear over their blouse when it’s cold. Students will, without fail, wear their uniform every day to and from school and on school trips. At school, however, many students spend much of the day in their gym clothes (usually thin gym pants or shorts (often blue) and a t-shirt (white) with an optional sweatshirt or jacket for cold days). Similarly, many staff members will come to work in a suit and tie but spend the day in gym clothes. I think the goal is to put on a good appearance for those outside the school, but I’m not entirely sure.
Sports Day & Culture Fests
There are several big events throughout the school year. The graduation ceremony is one of them that most of us can relate to but sports days and culture festivals aren’t something we usually see in the US. These events tend to have the most importance in high school but they’re held in junior high and many elementary schools as well. Note that both of them usually take place on weekends to encourage parents to attend (in return, students get one day off the following week).
Sports day divides the students into two or more teams (usually by grade and/or class). Throughout the day, the teams compete in a variety of different sporting activities. Relay races, ball tossing games, and even eating contests are all popular options, but the exact set of competitions can vary wildly. Points are awarded for how well the teams do and, at the end of the day, whichever team has the most points is declared the winner.
Culture festivals are sort of like fairs. Each class and/or club is tasked with creating some sort of booth or presentation and the whole thing is opened to the public. Popular student booths / presentations include: restaurants and cafes (sometimes with special themes), plays, musical performances, club demonstrations, and haunted classrooms. I never quite figured out who gets the money earned by the restaurants and other pay attractions. I assume a lot of it is used to pay expenses but I don’t know if whatever is left goes to the students or the school…
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the good old school fieldtrip to the nearest zoo, museum, fire station, or whatnot. Japanese schools do that. However, they tend to have much more impressive trips as well. Starting in late elementary school or junior high, students tend to go on one big school trip each year. For example, in the elementary school where I used to work the sixth grade kids went on a several day trip to Kyoto and Nara (which were a good four hours away by bullet train and are a very popular school trip destination) and at the junior high school where I’m working now, the third year students recently went on a two day ski trip in the area near Mt. Fuji. And if those trips aren’t elaborate enough, I know one girl whose class actually had a school trip to Seattle, Washington! I have to admit, I’ve rather curious as to why the school picked Seattle instead of New York, Orlando, Hawaii, or the Grand Canyon (the popular US tourist spots for foreign travelers), but that’s beside the point. Of course, these trips aren’t free and parents do have to pay for them, but it sure makes that trip to the zoo seem rather dull, doesn’t it?
In a big change from the US, high school in Japan is not mandatory. Though the percentage of Japanese kids that attend is still somewhere in the mid to high 90’s. Because high schools aren’t mandatory, most are privatized and, like colleges, there are more prestigious high schools that have a good reputation for certain subjects or for large portions of their students going on to prestigious universities. Because of this, it’s quite common for students to attend a high school that’s an hour or two away from the home. Some may even move out of their parents’ home and live with relatives or even in a private apartment just so they can attend a particularly good high school.
As a note, the more prestigious high schools tend to expect a certain level of achievement from their students (maintaining their reputation is important if they want to keep attracting lots of new students). Some even go so far as to interfere in students’ lives outside of school, forbidding students from getting jobs, going to arcades, and taking part in other non-school related activities in hope that they’ll spend more time studying instead. Naturally, these rules are difficult to enforce and are often ignored by the students (though many will change out of their uniform before engaging in such “forbidden” activities).
High school itself is very similar to junior high and covers grades 10 – 12. As with junior high there are school uniforms, clubs (which are often mandatory and tend a play a much bigger role in the students’ lives), and a wide variety of classes (though unlike many US high schools, students in Japan usually don’t get any say in which classes they take). The biggest change is that, instead of a set school lunch, many high schools have a cafeteria and students are free to buy lunch there or bring their own.
As I mentioned a moment ago, like US colleges, some Japanese high schools and universities have better reputations than others. High schools may brag about the percentage of their students that make it into big name universities like Tokyo University while the universities will brag about the percentage of their students who went on to get jobs in big name companies. In many ways, your future professional life in Japan can be determined primarily by your choice of high school. But getting into the best schools isn’t easy. Third year junior high and high school students must pass an extremely difficult set of entrance exams (both national exams and specialized exams for their preferred school) in the spring leading up to their graduation. In the US, a decent SAT or ACT score will get you in almost anywhere. In Japan, the tests are longer and harder and, if you want to get into the top schools, you need really good scores. These periods in students’ lives are often referred to as exam hell. In addition to their regular school work, serious students will devote the vast majority of their free time to studying and attending cram schools, often getting very little sleep and working themselves to exhaustion. When it comes to high schools, students will often pick a fairly easy to get into back-up school, in case they fail to get into their top choices. For university, however, it’s common for students who fail their exams to keep studying and try again the following year (in Japan, entrance exams are only held once per year and new students always start school in April). Students like this are referred to as ronin (an old word for masterless samurai) and may spend several years attempting to get into the school of their choice before giving up pursuing a different path.
College and University
While getting into a Japanese university is extremely difficult, things get considerably easier once you’re in. In fact, from everything I’ve heard, standards are pretty lax and it’s extremely difficult to fail a class. In other words, so long as you passed the entrance exams you’re almost guaranteed to graduate from university no matter what. Because of this, many university students focus more of their energy on their hobbies (often as part of a school club), part time jobs, and just relaxing and enjoying the freedom they have prior to joining the work force (which, in many professions, tends to leave little time for any sort of personal or social life).
And that’s the Japanese school system. It certainly does some things well (giving students a sense of pride, discipline, and hard work, helping them find friends and become part of a group, etc) but it has its problems as well (overworking students, teaching heavily towards tests (which is one reason why, despite years of English lessons, most Japanese people can’t handle even the most basic English conversation), and the like). I think Japanese educators could learn a few things from the educational system in the US but I think that US educators could learn quite a lot from Japan as well.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, February 28, 2011
While that modern Japanese school system was somewhat modeled after the one in US, it’s undergone a number of changes that make it uniquely Japanese. Here’s a quick overview of how it’s set up. Since this is a long subject, I’m breaking it up into two parts, the second of which will be up next Monday.
The School Schedule
The Japanese school year starts in April and ends in March. All in all, it encompasses a lot more days than the American school year. Some schools (mainly high schools, I think) have a half day of classes every Saturday and breaks are much shorter. Aside from the odd national holiday, kids get off for a week or two after the end of the school year in late March, a week at the end of April / beginning of May for Golden Week (a week long period containing four national holidays), a month or so (usually August) for summer break, and a week or week and a half for New Years.
Kids tend to spend more time each day at school than in the US as well. They arrive around 8 AM (though some come earlier for club activities) and stay at least until classes end (around 3:30 or 4). Many, especially high school students, stay considerably later for various club activities. As a note, at many high schools joining and being an active member of a school club is mandatory, so not all students spend so much time with their clubs because they want to. Naturally, many members of the staff arrive before the kids every morning and stay much later as well.
Preschool & Kindergarten
Preschool or kindergarten is optional, like in the US, and is mainly for parents who can’t (or don’t want to) care for their young children during the day or want to get them an early start on learning. Some elementary schools have preschool classes that children can be enrolled in, but there are numerous private preschools and kindergartens as well. Children are usually dropped off by their parents or picked up by a bus. As is to be expected with young kids, classes are a mix of light learning, songs, and games. Unlike a day care, preschools and kindergartens have set class schedules with the kids arriving and leaving at the same times every day. It’s worth noting that some preschools only cover a part of the age range. For example, I taught at two preschools. One had three year olds and some younger kids who too little to be part of the real classes while the other had only four and five year olds.
Like in the US, elementary school is mandatory, with kids attending the one closest to their home. That is, unless their parents opt for a pricy private elementary school instead. Japanese elementary schools teach grades 1 – 6, so kids are mostly ages 6 – 12.
Elementary schools usually don’t have uniforms (though there are exceptions) though the kids often have special hats and sometimes coats as well to wear on their way to school and on school trips. These are usually in very bright colors, so the kids are easy to spot. They may also have an official school set of gym clothes, to be worn during P.E. classes and other heavy physical activity. And, while it’s not required (at least as far as I know), most elementary school kids have the same kind of rather boxy backpack, which are supposed to last them until junior high.
Elementary schools (and all schools above preschools for that matter), rarely have buses. While parents will occasionally drop their kids off, it’s more common for the children to walk to school. They usually live only a short distance from their school but children who live further away or attend distant private schools will often take the bus and/or train. On any given weekday morning in Japan (so long as it’s not a holiday), it’s quite common to see large numbers of little kids walking down the road, getting on and off buses and trains, and the like. Clearly parents here have a bit more faith in their kids than many in the US do these days.
The school day is divided up into 6 class periods (though in elementary school the 6th is often skipped or used for optional things like club activities), along with a lunch break and a couple of recesses. Aside from the basic subjects (Japanese, match, science, P.E. etc), many elementary school kids also have classes in home economics, music, art, and English (until very recently, English wasn’t taught in many elementary schools but it’s since become mandatory for 5th and 6th graders). While some elementary schools have clubs, they’re optional and occupy far less time than junior high and high school clubs do.
Lunch is provided by the school (for the equivalent of several dollars a day). School lunches tend to have a pretty diverse menu and, in a nod to the US (or at least what Japan thinks the US is like), a glass or carton of milk comes with every meal. Unlike all the horror stories about US school lunches, the ones in Japan are fairly healthy and of good quality (they’re primarily Japanese food and made on site by the cooking staff, so there’s not a huge amount of sweets or fatty foods). In fact, the vast majority of the teachers and other school staff eat the school lunch just like the students.
And then there’s cleaning time. Japanese schools have a daily cleaning time (usually right after lunch or recess). Kids (usually in groups of two or three) are assigned different parts of the school and sent off to spend 15 or 20 minutes cleaning. Some student groups are supervised by teachers (especially in elementary schools), but many aren’t. While students may occasionally have access to vacuums and other appliances, the cleaning is primarily done the old fashioned way with brooms, rags, and buckets. And, believe it or not, the kids are usually pretty disciplined and get their work done without complaint. The purpose of cleaning time is to teach the kids about hard work, help them develop a sense of pride in their school, and encourage them to keep things neat and tidy (because if they make a mess, they’re just going to have to clean it up later).
Depending on the size of the school and the number of students, there may be anywhere from one to several classes per grade. Students generally stay in the same class throughout their entire time in elementary school, keeping the same classmates and homeroom teacher for all six years. This focus on class identity is further strengthened by the fact that students spend the majority of their time in their main classroom. While they will go to different rooms for classes that require special equipment (science and P.E., for example), for most classes it’s the teachers, and not the students, who go from room to room. As a note, homeroom teachers usually teach one subject or another, so they have much more to do than just supervise their own class.
While elementary school students can certainly be energetic and loud at times, they tend to be much politer and better behaved then American elementary students. Bullying is uncommon, kids almost always do what they’re told, they hardly ever disrupt class, and they mostly have a good attitude about things. While Japanese culture and things like the aforementioned cleaning time likely contribute to this, it also helps that Japanese parents and teachers haven’t become as discipline averse as those in the US. In the rare times when I’ve seen a student cause problems, the teacher isn’t afraid to yell at them or even give them a smack if necessary. Of course, such things aren’t usually necessary and teachers are sure not to take things too far, but such extreme actions tend to stop a problem child in his tracks very quickly and act as a good deterrent. While I have heard a couple of horror stories about teachers who bully or terrorize their students, all the ones I’ve met myself have been very kind and understanding to their students, only resorting to punishment if absolutely necessary.
And that’s elementary school life. Overall, it tends to be a fun and easy time for children, before things starting getting busier and more difficult in junior high.
By Josiah Lebowitz
Friday, February 25, 2011
Before we get into today’s topic, I wanted to let you know that, since I have next week off from work, I’ll be traveling around the Japanese island of Shikoku, which I’ve never visited before. While I’ll most likely write some travel tips for the area on this blog sooner or later, if you don’t want to wait you can read my travelogue every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at www.pebbleversion.com I should also mention that I’m not sure how often I’ll have internet access on the trip so there’s a chance I won’t be able to update this blog every day like I usually do. Now, back to the matter at hand…
Rice bowls are a staple of Japanese fast food. In fact, gyuudon (a bowl of rice topped with sliced beef and a soy based sauce) is often one of the cheapest meals you’ll find in Japan. At restaurant chains like Yoshinoya, you can get a decent sized bowl of gyuudon and a cup of tea for only several hundred yen and upgrade it to a set (which usually includes miso soup and a salad of some kind) for about 100 yen more (with the grand total for the gyuudon, tea, salad, and soup being around $5).
Most gyuudon restaurants are designed with quick meals in mind. They often ticket machines (which I explained in my post about Japanese restaurants) where you place your order and pay (though there are some where you have to tell your order directly to the server) and a long counter instead of tables. After taking an empty seat at the counter and handing over your ticket, you’ll be given a drink (usually green tea, barley tea, or ice water, depending on the restaurant) and your order will arrive in a matter of minutes. There will usually be a couple of boxes on the counter. The longer shorter one will have chopsticks and maybe some spoons while the other will be full of strips of pickled ginger (a popular gyuudon topping). There may also be a jug of tea or water, though usually the servers just periodically refill everyone’s cups.
As a note, gyuudon usually comes in two or three different sizes. Sometimes these sizes are written in Japanese using the kanji symbols for big and small. If you can’t read them, you can always go by the price since the larger the bowl is the more it costs. Sometimes, however, sizes are given as S, M, and L. The thing to remember here is that Japanese people tend to refer to them as S, M, and L instead of small, medium, and large.
There are a few common variations on standard gyuudon, though the names of each vary a bit by restaurant. First up we have gyuudon topped with green onions (negi), which is just what it sounds like. Gyuudon with egg (tamago) is usually a normal bowl of gyuudon with an egg (either soft boiled or raw) on the side, which you then break open and mix in. There’s also rice bowls with chicken (tori or toriniku) or pork (buta) instead of beef, though at that point they’re no longer gyuudon since gyuu means cow or beef.
If you’re looking for a quick and cheap meal in Japan, gyuudon (or some other type of rice bowl) is a great way to go. Aside from the fast service and low price, it tastes great and is a whole lot healthier than a burger and fries (which you can also find in Japan, but we’ll talk about that another day).