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.

Page 5 of 10

Common Japanese Misconceptions about Japan

By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, February 24, 2011

Interestingly enough, Japanese people tend to have a set of misconceptions about their own country and race, though I suppose they’re hardly alone in that. But anyway, let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.

#1: Seasons

 Winter (and snow monkeys) in Japan

Japan has four distinct seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Well, technically they’re: fuyu, haru, natsu, and aki. But it’s the same thing. In winter it’s cold and snows (unless you’re far to the south in the more tropical areas like Okinawa). In spring the flowers bloom (including the famous Japanese cherry blossoms). In summer it’s hot and humid (much like the East coast of the US). And in the fall the leaves change color and fall off the trees.

Now, chances are you didn’t find anything particularly remarkable about what I just said. But many Japanese people like to proudly describe their seasons and tell you how great it is to live in a country with four different ones. See, for some reason (I’ve never really figured out why), a lot of Japanese people are under the impression that Japan is the only country in the world with four distinct seasons. It’s actually a bit of a bragging point for some, which leaves them rather disappointed when you set things straight.

#2: The Japanese Language

A tablet carved with Japanese letters

Quite a lot of Japanese people have a tendency to think that the Japanese language is so complex that no foreigner could ever possibly master it. I’m not sure if the point of this is that they don’t think you can learn Japanese unless you grow up in Japan, or that they think that the average Japanese person is a little smarter than the average foreigner. But, while it’s generally acknowledged that Japanese is one of the harder languages to learn, with enough time and study foreigners can certainly become fluent and master all of its complexities. I’m not anywhere near there yet, unfortunately, but it can be done. On the positive side, this belief leads many Japanese people to be endlessly impressed by foreigners who can speak even a little bit of Japanese.

#3: Japanese Physiology
Instead of attributing things like their dietary preferences, mindset, work ethic, and the like to cultural differences (their upbringing and surroundings), a lot of Japanese people like to attribute them to bogus physiological differences. For example, saying that Japanese people have different brain chemistry or longer intestines than people from other countries.

#4: Japan is an All Japanese Country

A crowded Tokyo street

Well, I suppose this isn’t that far off, but there’s a decent amount of ethnic Chinese and Koreans living in Japan (which naturally means there’s a lot of kids of mixed descent as well), along with the odd American, Australian, European, etc. And then there’s the Ainu (Hokkaido’s equivalent of Native Americans), who were displaced by Japanese settlers, and the Okinawans (who, while closer to regular Japanese than the Ainu, were still a separate people group for quite some time). So while Japan is still an extremely homogenous society, especially compared to countries like the US, it’s not quite as much of one as they like to think.

#5: Japan Has No X
X could be the yakuza (Japanese mafia), illegal sex trade, or any other undesirable element. Actually, when it comes down to it, every Japanese person knows the yakuza still exists (and is quite prominent in some areas and industries). They also know that, despite laws banning it, prostitution (including underage prostitution) hasn’t really ended either (though it’s primarily limited to certain areas and isn’t anywhere near as blatant as in Las Vegas). However, Japanese people, and the Japanese media and government for that matter, don’t really like admitting that the country has problems like that. This is especially true in the case of the government, since that would be admitting that they aren’t really doing their job when it comes to dealing with such issues. So, instead, it’s easier to just pretend that everything is fine and that those undesirable elements and problems in society just don’t exist. While such a practice does fit with the Japanese practice of striving to keep everything peaceful and harmonious (which I’ll go into in more detail another day), it also means that a lot of things that really should be dealt with by government policy, police crackdowns, or even action on the part of ordinary citizens tend to get ignored and fall by the wayside instead.

Did you catch the theme running through these beliefs? With the exception of #5, they all stem from the fact that, despite their emphasis on group harmony and homogeny, Japanese people like to believe that their race and country is unique and special compared to the rest of the world. And it is (every race and country is unique), just not in some of the ways they think.



By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Akihabara, also known as Akiba for short, is Tokyo’s electric town. While it was originally geared towards people looking for radio parts, electrical cables, and the like, its focus has changed and evolved over the years. Although the stores in Aikihabara contain just about every electronic gizmo, gadget, and appliance imaginable (from computer parts, to digital cameras, to electronic dictionaries, and more), these days its primary focus is on anime (Japanese animation), manga (Japanese comics), video games, and an endless array of related merchandise.
If you have no real interest in those types of things, you’ll probably walk around for half an hour just to see all the crazy store displays and be ready to move on. If you’re looking for a new camera, MP3 player, or laptop, you may want to spend a couple of hours comparison shopping the electronics stores. But if you’re a self-styled otaku (a Japanese slang word for someone with an obsessive devotion one hobby or another and an American slang word for fans of Japanese anime, manga, and/or video games) you can easily spend a full day or two (and a small fortune) browsing its many stores.

Getting There
Conveniently located on both the Yamanote line train and the Hibiya subway line, Akihabara is very easy to reach from just about anywhere in Tokyo. If you’re in the Ueno area it’s not a bad walk either, but without a good map you’ll likely end up hopelessly lost.
If you took the train, follow the signs to the Electric Town Exit and you’ll quickly find yourself at the entrance to the heart of Akihabara’s shopping area. If you came by subway, follow the signs for Exit 3 and you’ll come out right in front of Yodobashi camera. From there, follow the sidewalk around the store to the left, cross the street to the train station, and take the clearly marked East – West passage, which will take you to about the same place you’d be had you taken the train.

What to See
Akihabara isn’t much for attractions, it’s all about shopping. There are a couple of shrines around, though none are particularly worth seeing, and there’s a visitor center, though it’s a little out of the way and there’s really no pressing reason to visit it either. About the only thing that could be considered a true attraction is the AKB48 stage, though getting tickets takes a bit of work (more on that later).

Shopping in Akihabara

Inside the Super Potato store in Akihabara

The afore mentioned train and subway directions will leave you at the start of Akibahara’s main shopping area. Following that street a short distance and you’ll hit a main road (which is conveniently blocked to cars on Sundays). From here, the shopping district encompasses a roughly rectangular area starting about one block back and to your left and stretching two or three blocks in front of you and quite a ways to your right. There’s an enormous amount of stores crammed into the surrounding high-rises. Many are either stacked one on top of one another or occupy several floors of a single building. Some are even spread out between several buildings scattered throughout the district, with each one focusing on a different product (Softmap, for example, has a store for computer hardware, a store for music, a store for anime merchandise, and several others I can’t remember off the top of my head).

If you’re just looking for a new camera, the major electronics stores (Yodobashi Camera, Bic Camera, Softmap, and many of the smaller ones) are pretty easy to spot if you just walk around a little bit. If you’re an otaku browsing for anime and game merchandise, many of the best stores are tiny little places hidden away in a basement or on the fourth floor of some random building. But when you’re looking for that rare CD, game, or figurine, exploring different stores and seeing what you happen to find along the way is half the fun. Due to its confusing layout, it’s hard to give a good description of what’s where in Akihabara without drawing a fairly detailed map and, as I just said, if you’re the type of person who is going to be spending a lot of time there, you’ll have a good time just wandering around and checking out every interesting looking store you come across. So for now, I’ll just list a few of my favorite shops and give some general directions to help you find them. Please note that I’m barely scratching the surface here and could gone on for ages.

The Yodobashi Camera main store in Akihabara

Yodabashi Camera: The Japanese electronics giant has its main store in Akihabara and it has everything (from electronics to anime figurines). If it’s new, hot, and in any way related to electronics, they probably have it. And, if you’re living in Japan, they have a point card that makes all the ones from US stores pale in comparison. That said, it’s rarely the cheapest place to shop (though the point card can swing things in its favor at times). Also of note is the excellent food court on the 8th floor, which contains a very wide variety of excellent restaurants, many of which have English menus. Yodobashi is a huge impossible to miss building right outside the Electric Town Exit of the subway station. If you came be train, reverse the subway directions I gave in the Getting There section.

Gamers: Occupying a large building on the right when you first enter Akihabara’s main shopping area by either of the routes I gave, it’s probably one of the first stores you’ll see. It has a great selection of anime, manga, games, and every sort of related merchandise so it’s a great place to go when you want to scope out the latest items But, if you’ve got time to hit up some other shops, you can usually find better prices elsewhere.

My Way 2: This is actually a little shopping mall primarily specializing anime and game figurines and various types of model kits (though the K-Books store on the third floor has a very good selection of used manga, music, and games as well). This place is easily overlooked, so keep an eye out for the My Way sign and a lone escalator across the street from Gamers.

Mandrake: Across the street, way to the right, and a bit set back from that first big intersection I mentioned, Mandrake has a tall black building all its own. When it comes to used amine, manga, games, and related merchandise they pretty much have everything you could want.

Super Potato Akihabara

Super Potato: Cross that street at that afore mentioned intersection, keep going for another block, then head right and keep an eye out on your right for a sign featuring 8-bit Pacman and Mario. If you’re looking for used games for older systems (primarily the original Playstation and earlier) or game soundtracks you really don’t want to miss Super Potato. They’ve got a nice retro arcade on the top floor as well.

Tips for Shopping in Akihabara

Akihabara at night

1. The major stores like Yodobashi Camera and Gamers have excellent selections of new merchandise and are good places to see what's new and what the average price of stuff is, but you can usually find better prices elsewhere if you've got time to spare.
2. Quite a lot of shops specialize in used things. Unlike in the US, most used merchandise in Japan is in mint or near mint condition and considerably cheaper than buying new. Used is also the way to go when looking for old and/or rare items.
3. Many stores are spread out over several floors of the same building. Even if you're not leaving the store itself, make sure you always pay for your items before changing floors (or, in some cases, sections of floors).
4. With so many little stores spread all over the place, it's rather difficult to do much serious comparison shopping. Instead, try a get a feel for the average price of what you want and then just grab it once you see a price that you're happy with.
5. Most sets of figurines come in random boxes and you won't know which one you got until after you open it. While that can be fun, there's a lot of stores that specialize in selling used / open figurines. Note that in any given set some figurines are going to be fairly cheap and others really expensive so whether or not it pays to just buy the ones you want or get some boxes and hope you get lucky varies by situation.
6. If offered a point card at a store, go ahead and take it, some of them give pretty impressive discounts. Though keep in mind that some stores won’t give point cards to people not living in Japan.
7. Look everywhere. There's a lot of great little stores hidden away up long flights of stairs or down small alleyways. Exploring is really half the fun.
8. As a rule, remember that Japanese DVDs (nearly all videos and some PC games) won't work in US DVD players and drives (they're region locked). Ditto with most video games (games for the Gameboy and Gameboy Advance, regular DS (not the DSi), PSP, and PS3 being the notable exceptions). CDs (both music and software) are fine, as are most Blu-ray discs.
9. There are a lot of products of an adult nature available in Akihabara, ranging from mildly suggestive to highly explicit. Most stores put such items on their own floor (though, if you can’t read Japanese, it isn’t always obvious which floor that is) or separate them from the rest of the store with warning signs but some smaller stores do not. Furthermore, some perfectly harmless items often end up located in the same areas as the adult products. I’ll go into the reasons behind this is a future post but for now just consider yourself warned and if such things offend you, or you have kids in tow, be careful where you go.

Maid Cafes

A girl hands out flyers for the maid cafe where she works.

Many of the area’s best restaurants are clustered near Yodobashi Camera (or in its excellent food course), though there’s some good cheap places scattered about as well. But if you want to try something that Akihabara is famous for, you can visit one of its many maid cafes. If you see girls on the streets of Akihabara in costume handing out flyers, that’s what they’re advertising. In maid cafes, the waitresses are all young cute girls dressed as maids (though there are some with different themes such as nurses, anime cosplay (costumes), etc. Aside from the eye candy, the draw is that they’re extremely friendly and submissive, addressing customers as “goshujin-sama” (master), making small talk, and generally acting like the perfect doting maid. The food isn’t anything amazing (and costs a bit more than it would at a regular restaurant), so they’re more a place to go for the experience than a meal. If you’re interested in going to a maid café, keep in mind that your average maid doesn’t really speak any English so knowing some Japanese (or having a Japanese friend come along) is a good idea.


The retro arcade in Super Potato

If you’re tired of shopping for games and want to play some, Akihabara has a number of large arcades though as many games cost 100 yen (around $1) per play, they can get a little expensive if you’re not careful. As in most Japanese arcades, expect a heavy focus on UFO catchers (claw machines), music games, fighting games, and games tied into collectable trading cards.

AKB48 is a J-Pop (Japanese pop music) idol group that’s unique in the fact that it contains 48 girls (from early teens to early twenties) divided into three teams (A, K, and B), plus a fourth team of understudies. Their songs are known for their complex dance numbers and make an effort to give every girl a chance to shine. They’ve become so popular over the last few years that they’ve spawned two spin-off groups in other parts of Japan. Another thing that sets AKB apart is that they perform multiple concerts every week at the Don Quixote store in Akihabara (though these days most of the concerts are done by Team Kenkyuusei (the understudies) rather than the main girls). That said, they’re still really good and at only 2000 yen (a little over $20) per ticket, their concerts are great for J-Pop fans and those who are just want an introduction to popular Japanese music. Getting tickets, however, isn’t all that easy (it’s a very small stage so the demand for the tickets is far greater than the supply). Hopeful attendees have to sign up on the band’s web site and enter a lottery for the show they want to attend (said lotteries generally only open several days before the concert date). If you win the lottery then, and only then, you can go and purchase a ticket a couple hours before the show (the counter is on the top floor of the Akihabara Don Quixote store (take a right at the first big intersection, walk a few blocks, and it’ll be on your right). While they have no problem with foreigners attending the concerts, the web site is all in Japanese, though you can probably puzzle through it with the help of Google Translate.

If you have no particular interest in anime or electronics, Akihabara is a curious place to visit for a little while. For a real otaku, however, it can easily become a highlight of any Japan trip. Either way, it’s another Tokyo location that shouldn’t be missed.



By Josiah Lebowitz
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Me at Asakusa's Kamennari Gate

Asakusa is in the Northeastern part of Tokyo. While it was once the city’s trendiest entertainment district, it has since become a popular shopping area. It’s an especially good place to find all manner of souvenirs and features a variety of excellent restaurants and snack stands, all of which are set in a series of shopping arcades which lead up to one of Tokyo’s most famous temples.

Getting There
The easiest way to reach Asakusa is on the Asakusa or Ginza subway lines, both of which pass through many major stations throughout the city.

What to See
The main things to see in Asakusa are shopping arcades and the temple complex, though there are a few other points of interest as well.

Asakusa Shopping Arcades

A shopping arcade in Asakusa

Shopping arcades are open-air shopping streets with a roof overhead (allowing the stores to operate normally regardless of the weather). If you leave Asakusa station by one of the main exits, you’ll end up right across the street from the entrance to the main shopping arcade. Just head down the covered street and you’ll find yourself amidst a diverse mix of restaurants, clothing stores, and the like, along with some shops focusing on more traditional Japanese items such as paper fans and kimono.

There are several different branches to follow, with the arcade eventually dead ending into a narrow shopping street lined with snack stands and colorful stalls selling a wide variety of Japanese souvenirs, from the tacky to the exquisite.

The road leading to Sensoji Temple

If you won’t get the chance to travel to towns that specialize in traditional Japanese crafts (such as wood carving, lacquer, weaving, etc), you can still find a surprisingly good selection of those items here. This is also a great place to just walk around and sample the different Japanese snacks and sweets that are available. My personal favorite is the chestnut taiyaki (fish shaped pastries) available from a tiny store in the main shopping arcade.

My favorite taiyaki stand.

If you follow the souvenir shop lined street to the left, you’ll reach the famous Kamennari Gate while if you got right you’ll come to Asakusajinja Shrine and Sensoji Temple. If you still haven’t had enough shopping, there are some interesting stores a little off the beaten path which you can reach by approaching the temple complex then turning down the road leading to your left. If you think you can manage to eventually find your way back to the subway station, it’s fun to just wander around and see what you can find. All in all, depending on your interests, exploring the shopping arcades in Asakusa can occupy anywhere from a couple hours to the better part of a day.

Asakusajinja Shrine & Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

As described in the previous section, the temple complex sits at the end of the busy shopping street which starts at Kamennari Gate. The large gates, pagoda, and throngs of people heading to and from the temple make it impossible to miss once you reach the general area. Though it’s far from the grandest shrine or temple complex to be found in Japan, the main temple still an impressive structure as is the large pagoda nearby (even though it’s only a replica of the original) and there are numerous smaller buildings and statues scattered around the area. This is a good place to spot women wearing traditional Japanese kimono coming to pray, especially around New Year’s, though be warned that the crowds on the first few days of January tend to make the entire area nearly impassable. Assuming you visit at a more reasonable time of year, expect to spend 15 – 30 minutes looking around the complex.

Other Things to See

The Asahi Beer building and the Tokyo Sky Tree

Back at the subway station, if you turn and walk around and behind the station (instead of crossing the street to the shopping arcade) you’ll quickly come to bridge from which you can see the Asahi Beer brewery (the building with the golden swish thing on top) and the new Tokyo Sky Tree (the circular tower which will be the country’s tallest building one it’s completed in 2012). There’s also a dock right by the bridge where you can catch a sightseeing boat to Odaiba. Finally, if you’re really fond of the plastic food found in the window displays of many Japanese restaurants, you can get some of your own at the stores on Kappabashi Dogugai Street (a ten or fifteen minute walk to the Northwest; a map is recommended).

A store selling plastic food.

Asakusa is a great place to shop for souvenirs, try out a wide variety of Japanese snacks, and see one of Tokyo’s best temple complexes. As such, I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Tokyo, especially those who won’t get the chance to visit the temples and shopping streets in places like Nikko and Kyoto.


Japanese Baths and Hot Springs

By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, February 21, 2011

A private onsen pool at a mountain resort

Bathing is a very important part of Japanese life. In fact, many Japanese people will take a bath every day (usually in the evening). Though showers have also become popular, especially for people in small apartments where there isn’t room for a nice bathtub, for the Japanese nothing beats a good bath. While personal bathtubs and bath houses are both good, the ultimate bathing experience is in an onsen (hot springs). But bathing is a bit more complicated than just hopping in the tub or slipping on your swimsuit and heading for a hot springs pool. There’s a whole process you need to follow. But more on that in a moment…

Japanese Bathtubs
Since bathing is so important to the Japanese, bathtubs tend to be bigger and deeper than those in the US. Especially since you want to be able to submerge your entire body up to your head. And, as it’s common for parents to bathe with their young children, many bathtubs will be large enough to fit two or three people. It’s traditional for Japanese people to bathe every evening, often shortly before they go to bed, and it’s a good wife’s job to have a hot bath prepared for her husband every night when he returns home from work. Bathing is seen not just as a way to get clean but as a way to relax as well, so a bath is considered an important part of unwinding after a long day.

As a note, in Japanese houses and apartments bathtubs and/or showers are often placed in their own room, completely separate from the toilet and sink (though sometimes there will be sinks in both rooms).

Bath Houses

The men's baths in an older bath house.

These days, most Japanese people have a bathtub or at least a shower in their house or apartment. But that wasn’t also always the case and even now many older buildings and smaller apartments will lack bathtubs. So what do Japanese people without bathtubs do when they want a bath? They go to a public bath house.

Bath houses are buildings containing large communal baths (separated by gender). For a few hundred yen (several dollars) you can go in, get clean, and relax in the baths to your heart’s content. Many bath houses stay open all night and most of the day as well, so you really can take it easy and stay as long as you like. While you’re welcome to bring your own towels (ideally, you should have a big one and a small one), soap, and shampoo, if you forgot or don’t have any the bathhouses will provide some (often for a small fee). To help entice customers now that more and more people have their own bathtubs, many modern bath houses include fancy jet baths, multiple bath types featuring different water temperatures and/or special mineral mixtures, saunas, outdoor pools, and the like.

As an interesting aside, the traditional Japanese after bath drink (at least for the last 60 years or so), is flavored milk. You’ll often have your choice of flavors such as strawberry, lemon, and coffee. Though if flavored milk isn’t your thing, most bath houses have vending machines as well so you can always grab some coffee, tea, or soda.


My mom and a friend try out the foot baths at a Tokyo onsen park

While bath houses are all well and good, onsen (hot springs) are the place to bath and I’ve yet to meet a Japanese person who doesn’t consider spending a weekend at an onsen resort in the mountains to be an excellent vacation. But you don’t have to go to the mountains. There are onsen all over Japan. Even Tokyo has a couple. Though the image of the “ideal” onsen is a large rustic outdoor bath in a tranquil mountain setting.

Aside from the fact that they use real hot springs water as opposed to ordinary water, onsen are similar to bath houses, though usually a lot more picturesque. Men and women have separate baths and you follow the same bathing ritual and etiquette (more on that in a moment). However, many onsen feature entire resorts or hotels built around them. It’s common for towns with lots of onsen to become popular vacation destinations featuring a number of public onsen baths and hotels with private baths of their own. Guests tend to come for two or three days to relax and may bath two or three times a day, either using their hotel’s onsen or traveling around the area and sampling the different ones that are available.

Japanese Bathing Etiquette
While foreigners are given a lot of leeway when it comes to Japanese manners and etiquette, there are a few rules that it’s absolutely critical that you don’t break, and the rules surrounding bathing are among them. Of course, if you’re taking a private bath in your hotel room you can do what you want. But if you go to a bath house or onsen it’s important to follow proper bathing etiquette to avoid trouble. Here’s the basic process.

1. If you’re just entering the building, there will likely be a place to take off your shoes and deposit them in a shoe locker. Do so.

2. If you didn’t bring towels, soap, and shampoo, go ahead and buy or rent a set (if you aren’t given the option to do so, then they’re most likely provided for free in the locker room and/or bath area).

3. Go to the appropriate locker room and find your locker. Depending on where you are, there may be a shelf to place your big towel on. If not, it goes in the locker. Occasionally, instead of lockers, there will be shelves, baskets, or something similar but you get the idea.

4. Strip down and leave everything in your locker. The only things that come with you from here are your soap, shampoo, and small towel. And I do mean the ONLY things because from here on out you’ll be completely naked. No clothing, no big towel wrapped around you, no nothing. In Japan, bathing is done entirely in the buff. This is, of course, why there are separate baths for men and women. Little kids, however, stay with their parents regardless of gender.

As a note, while they’re becoming increasingly rare, you can find some mixed gender baths if you look hard enough (usually in some far out the way part of the mountains). A few allow bathers to wear towels into the water but most don’t. As a rule, women (especially young women) tend to avoid these baths.

The washing area at a small onsen

5. Moving on, you’ll find yourself in an area with a lot of low faucets and/or showerheads. Grab a bucket and a stool (usually either by the door or the faucets themselves) and sit down in front of one of them. It’s time to get clean. That’s right, in Japan you get clean before even entering the bath. If there isn’t a showerhead, you can use the faucet to fill your bucket with water and pour it over yourself. Anyway, the goal here is to wash your entire body (with soap) and wash your hair. You can use your little towel to scrub yourself and/or dry off as needed. Make sure to rinse yourself off when you’re done, as you don’t want to get any soap suds in the bath itself.

6. Once you’re done, stick your soap and shampoo in your bucket and either leave it at the faucet or, if the place it crowded, stick it somewhere out of the way. Now it’s finally time for the bath. Depending on the bath house or onsen you’re at, there may be several pools or only one and said pools may be outdoors, indoors, or some combination of the two. Feel free to move between pools whenever you want, just keep the following in mind. First off, since the water is shared it’s important to keep it clean. On that note, you’re supposed to keep your hair out of the water. Keep your little towel out of the water as well (either set it aside or fold it and set it on your head like many Japanese people do). Second, these are baths, not swimming pools, so you shouldn’t swim, splash around, or anything like that. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the water.

7. If you need a break from the heat, there’s often a cold pool somewhere and benches you can sit on to cool off. When you’re ready to leave entirely, go collect your soap and shampoo then rinse off if you want to (at some onsen, people don’t rinse off before they leave since they want to make sure they get the maximum benefit from the mineral rich water). Finally, get your big towel, dry off, get dressed, return your towels if you rented them, and you’re ready to go.

As one final note, people with tattoos aren’t allowed in many Japanese baths and onsen (though they can usually rent private baths if there are some available). Tattoos in Japan have a strong association with the yakuza (Japanese mafia) so they tend to make everyone else a bit uncomfortable.

So, what do you think? While bathing with a bunch of naked men or women can take a bit of getting used to (and isn’t for the extremely shy), Japanese baths and especially onsen are very relaxing and a great way to immerse yourself in the Japanese culture. Even if you can’t make it into the mountains, you should at least give one of Tokyo’s onsen (which I’ll talk about more in a future post) a try.


Ice Cream

By Josiah Lebowitz
Friday, February 18, 2011

Though not a traditional Japanese dessert by any means, ice cream has become quite popular. But, like most things, it's not quite the same as what you'd find in places like the US or Europe.

Ice Cream in Grocery Stores
Since grocery stores in Japan tend to be a lot smaller than the ones in the US, they have a smaller selection of many things, ice cream included. Haagen Dazs is pretty popular but it's the only US ice cream brand to be found in Japanese grocery stores and it’s significantly more expansive here. The most interesting things about the ice cream in Japanese grocery stores are the flavors and the size. I'll get to the flavors a bit later, so for now we’ll talk about the sizes. In a US store, most ice cream comes in pints with a smaller selection of larger and smaller containers. In Japan you’ll only find a handful of pints and usually in just a couple of flavors (vanilla and maybe chocolate, mostly). Instead, you'll come across a whole lot of little single serving containers that hold somewhere between 1/4 - 1/3 pints in a wide variety of flavors. I've yet to see any ice cream containers in Japan larger than a pint so if you can't live without galleon packs of ice cream you probably shouldn't visit Japan (and you should seriously consider changing your diet).

Ice Cream Stands & Parlors

This is actually a laundrymat, but the name makes it sound like and ice cream parlor...

I've seen a lot more ice cream stands and shops in Japan than in the US. Occasionally you'll come across a Baskin Robins and Japan has at least one or two Cold Stones as well. They’re both pretty similar to their US versions, though with a few flavors and toppings you won't see in the States (more on that in a moment). US chains aside, you'll see a lot of booths and small cafes selling ice cream (or sofuto kurimu (soft cream) as it’s often called). Said ice cream is always soft serve (so it melts pretty quickly in the summer), almost always comes in a small cone, is pretty much always the same size, and almost always costs 200 - 300 yen (around $2 - $3). Depending on the particular stand, there can be anywhere from one (vanilla) to about fifteen different flavors, with the average being around 4.

Ice Cream Flavors

A lot of different ice cream flavors...

Vanilla is the big one, just like in the US. If there's a place selling ice cream in Japan you can be sure that vanilla will be one of the flavors. Various types of chocolate are also popular as are the typical fruit flavors (especially strawberry). However, they really aren't the most popular. As I said, vanilla is everywhere but some of the most common flavors after vanilla are matcha, azuki, and melon. Mango and blueberry are also fairly popular. But, while those two sound normal enough, but I don't recall seeing a lot of mango or blueberry flavored ice cream back home.

To clarify, matcha is green tea. Haagen Dazs released their excellent matcha ice cream in the US a year or two ago (though it was out in Japan for years before that). If you’re in Colorado, Boulder Creamery also has a milder and creamier green tea ice cream that’s not too hard to find.

Azuki are sweet red beans that are used in a lot of Japanese sweets, particularly anpan (bread filled with azuki paste) and various other little bun, ball, and pastry type things. They taste like a sweet bean (kind of hard to describe if you’ve never had any) and can take a bit of getting used to, though most of my American friends who have tried various azuki based sweets ended up liking them.

While you can get several types of melon in Japan, if someone just says melon (as opposed to watermelon, for example) you can be pretty certain that they're talking about musk melon. Musk melon is a type of Japanese melon that’s pretty much impossible to find in the US. The outside is green and has a similar texture to a cantaloupe. The inside is green as well and tastes like a mix of a honeydew and a cantaloupe. As much as I like the actual melon, I don't think it makes a particularly great ice cream flavor, but that's probably just me. I love fresh melons but I've never really liked melon flavored things...

Anyway, those three (matcha, azuki, and melon) are the most popular flavors after vanilla and even American brands like Haagen Dazs and Baskin Robins have them here. But that’s only the beginning. See, nearly all of those soft serve ice cream stands stock the same brand and said brand has somewhere around 100 different flavors. A lot of stands stock or one two (or if you’re lucky ten or twenty) flavors beyond the basic and this is where things get really interesting. You’ll naturally find flavors for about every fruit imaginable, including some you may not have heard of before like ume (Japanese plums). There are also flavors for all the most popular teas, nuts and seeds (including unusual ones like chestnut and black sesame). And then they start to get odd. Flower flavors like rose and sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms) are rather mild but usually taste pretty good. And the ones based on various Japanese foods (many of which you normally wouldn’t associate with dessert) like tofu, rice, soy beans, and satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potatoes) aren’t bad either.

Finally you get to the really weird stuff. Wasabi ice cream, anyone? Can’t say I’m a fan (I did try it, twice in fact), but it’s great for a practical joke (just tell your friend it’s green tea). And the milder version is fairly edible, though I couldn’t even make it halfway a cone of the regular, and I like wasabi. But if that isn’t strange enough, you can also keep an eye out for flavors like snake, eel, and squid ink. Note that even to Japanese people, these really weird flavors don’t have much appeal beyond their novelty value so they can be pretty hard to find.

While I’ve ended up with a couple of ice cream flavors I wasn’t too fond of (like wasabi), most of them are pretty good, no matter how strange they may sound. And, worst comes to worst, at least you’ll get a good story out of the whole experience. So, if you’re even in Japan, take a look at any ice cream stands you pass and be adventurous. You never know what flavors you may end up liking.

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