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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Common Japanese Misconceptions About the US

By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, February 17, 2011

It’s only natural that people develop stereotypes and misconceptions about other countries. Especially countries that they’ve never visited. In the US, we even have a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about other states. Even if you really take the time to study and learn about a place (which people often don’t), you can’t truly understand its culture, lifestyle, etc until you’ve spent a decent amount of time there yourself. Since we generally lack that experience, we tend to form opinions based on what we see on TV, read in the news, hear from others, and the like, regardless of how accurate all that information is.

Now, imagine taking someone who has never visited or studied the US and sitting him down to watch some episodes of The Simpsons, Friends, CSI, and 24. What kind of opinions would shows like that give him about American values, manners, family life, crime, and the like? Probably not anything very positive.

Basically, I’m just trying to say that you can’t really fault Japan for the things I’m about to talk about since it’s an unfortunate fact that people do the same thing everywhere. And they actually have a much more positive opinion on the US than many other countries. So, with that said, here’s a look at some of the Japanese peoples’ more common misconceptions about the US.

#1: Manners

My mom and I dressed up old Japan style

This one applies to non-Japanese in general, not just Americans. Anyway, the belief is that foreigners are loud, rude, and not very neat, at least when compared to Japanese people. To some extent, that’s true.

When it comes to being loud, it’s true that many foreign languages are naturally spoken a bit more loudly than Japanese. Then there’s the tourists who tend to think that they’ll be better understood if they speak louder (which is occasionally true, but often isn’t). Finally, English teachers in public schools (who are the only foreigners many Japanese people have any real interaction with) are encouraged to talk loudly to help students pick up on the proper sound of the words.

On the subject of politeness, Japanese people tend to be extremely careful not to bother or inconvenience others (sometimes to rather ridiculous extremes). Plus, Japan and the Japanese language have an enormous number of rules and mannerisms related to politeness. Unfortunately, there are some foreigners who simply couldn’t care less about proper Japanese etiquette and just do what they want, which tends to reflect badly on their home country as a whole. But, even when you try to be polite and conscientious, it can take years to master all the facets of Japanese etiquette. Some are easy enough to pick up (like bowing and not wearing your shoes where you’re not supposed to) but others are extremely complex (such as speaking with the proper level of respect to people who are socially above or below you).

As for neatness, while I myself tend to keep things pretty neat and clean, I know lots of people in the US who, though not really slobs, rarely both to clean or straighten up. There are some Japanese people like that too but, as a whole, the Japanese do tend to be a bit more obsessive about order and cleanliness than your average American.

While Japanese people are generally too polite to act on any of these beliefs, there are some landlords who won’t rent apartments to foreigners because they’re afraid that they’ll trash the room or bother other tenants. Though that’s only a problem if you plan on staying in Japan for a very long time.

#2: Crimes
Once again, this applies to all foreigners, not just Americans. And, once again, there is some truth to it. Crime is Japan is very low and violent crime is almost non-existent. You can walk the streets and alleys of downtown Tokyo in the middle of the night with a wallet full of cash with nothing to fear. For that matter, you could drop said wallet on the ground and, when you come back to look for it the next day, you’ll likely find it either right where you left it or waiting for you at the nearest police box. I’ll get into the reasons behind Japan’s lack of crime another day and I won’t deny that things do get stolen occasionally, but when it comes down to it, Japan is one of the safest and most crime free countries in the world. So, while I’m not sure if foreigners in Japan actually commit many crimes, it’s easy to see why the Japanese can be a bit weary of people from other countries.

#3: Guns

Despite it's warrior past, Japan is now one of the safest countries in the world.

Quite a lot of people in Japan assume that everyone in the US walks around carrying a gun and are very surprised to hear that many Americans have never even touched a real gun, much less bought one. Naturally, this belief makes them feel that the US isn’t a very safe place, especially compared to Japan which, despite its history of samurai and territory wars now has a near total lack of violent crime and very strict anti-gun laws (the only people in Japan with guns are military, some policemen, and hardcore criminals). And yeah, the US isn’t anywhere near as safe as Japan, though not that many people carry guns around and shootings really aren’t all that common.

So how did this belief come about? Well, first off, Hollywood action movies and shows like 24 are pretty popular in Japan. And, in stuff like that, it seems like just about every character keeps at least one gun handy. And hey, if it’s like that in the movies it must be true (just like Jackie Chan taught us that all Asians are martial arts masters). But Hollywood isn’t entirely to blame. See, a while back there was a Japanese college student who went on a trip to the US. Problem is, he didn’t really know much English and ended up missing some warnings and trespassing on someone’s property. Unfortunately, the owner was a bit of a nutcase and shot him. The Japanese press had a field day with the story and it was blown way out of proportion. And the regular US news doesn’t help either since most of the “big” stories (which are the ones most likely to get reported in other countries) are about something horrible happening. Since, when it comes down to it, “everything today is just fine and dandy” makes for pretty boring news.

So there you have the three biggest Japanese misconceptions about the US. A bit ridiculous? Maybe, though there is a hint of truth to most of them. As the world grows more and more connected, maybe people will learn more about other countries and these types of misconceptions will clear up. Then again, the way things are going now, everyone will just watch more foreign TV shows and weird youtube videos and makes things worse…

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Capsule Hotels

By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that Japanese hotel rooms tend to be small but if you’re willing to do with even less space and without a few of the usual conveniences in the name of saving money, you can do so at one of Japan’s capsule hotels. In fact, a night in a capsule hotel can cost as little as $30 or so.

But why so cheap? Well, first off, you don’t have your own bathroom. There are shared toilets on each floor and somewhere in the hotel there’ll be a Japanese style bath (I’ll be talking about those more in a future post but for now let’s just say that they’re part shower, part bath, and shared). You might be thinking that’s not too bad but you don’t actually get your own room either. No, this isn’t like a hostel with bunk beds and roommates. Your “room” is a capsule.

Rows of capsules

A capsule is basically a tube about the length and width of a single bed. Each floor of a capsule hotel contains stacks and stacks of capsules. You start out by removing your shoes (often putting them in the provided shoe locker by the entrance) then leaving your luggage (if you have any) in a regular locker. Note that there isn’t a ton of storage room so while backpackers will probably be ok, anyone with big suitcases may run into some trouble. While you’re in the locker room, you can also change into a yukata (Japanese robes which are most often worn in hotels) and pick up some towels for the bath. Anyway, once you’ve stowed your things, changed into your yukata, and bathed, it’s time to head to your capsule for the night. So find the right one, climb in, and pull down the privacy screen at the end.

Inside a capsule

The capsules themselves are moderately comfortable so long as you don’t mind lying down, though anyone with claustrophobia is bound to have issues. They’ll typically have a light and alarm clock inside and nicer ones will have a radio and/or TV as well, complete with headphones since capsules aren’t particularly sound proof. On that note, you should hope that none of the people in your neighboring capsules snore…

As it turns out, capsule hotels weren’t really created for travelers on a budget. Their primary clientele is businessmen who were out working and/or drinking late and missed the last train home. For reasons that I’ll cover in a future post, that happens quite a lot in big cities in Japan. So you’ll most often find capsule hotels near major train stations (near Ueno station in Tokyo, for example, is a good place to find them). Since many of their clients originally weren’t planning to spend the night, capsule hotels also sell your basic necessities such as toothbrushes, razors, clean shirts, and the like.

Of course, capsule hotels have no problem with tourists spending the night but you should keep in mind that you can’t make reservations and it’s strictly a one night at a time thing. Once you leave the building in the morning you lose your capsule, so you can’t store your luggage there all day while you’re off sightseeing or anything like that. I should also mention that, due to the relative lack of privacy, and the fact that their primary clientele are men, many capsule hotels don’t accept female guests. So, if you’re male and looking to tour Japan’s cities on the cheap with minimal luggage, capsule hotels might make a passable substitute for a regular hotel room. For everyone else, you may want to think about spending a single night in one, just for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend relying on them as your primary form of accommodation.

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Ueno

By Josiah Lebowitz
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spring in Ueno

Overview
Ueno is in the northeast part of Tokyo. It’s a very popular spot for shopping and entertainment, containing the massive Ueno Park and one of the city’s largest train stations (including direct trains to Narita Airport). While the shopping area isn’t quite as trendy or high class as those in some other parts of Tokyo, it contains a wide variety of items, mostly at bargain prices. Many of Tokyo’s best museums are also in Ueno, as is Tokyo’s most famous zoo. And if you’re dying to try out pachinko (Japanese gambling) or sleep in a capsule hotel (look for more on both of those things in future posts), Ueno has lots of them.
Ueno has numerous hotels ranging from the high class to bargain priced, though don’t expect the rooms to be as big as the ones you’ll find in the US (in general, Japanese hotel rooms are pretty small). There are a lot of restaurants as well, especially near the station, many of which have English menus available.

Getting There
Because Ueno Station is a major hub, it’s very easy to get to. Numerous train lines stop there including both the JR and Keisei airport lines, the Yamanote Line (which makes a loop through many of Tokyo’s major stations), and the Ginza and Hibiya subway lines.

What to See
Ueno has two major attractions, both of which are right outside the station.

Ameya Shopping Area

The Ameya Yokochou shopping area.

First up is Ameya (short for Ameya Yokochou), Ueno’s collection of busy shopping streets. With space often at a premium, many towns and cities in Japan prefer tightly packed shopping streets to the kind of large malls that we have in the US. From the main exit of Ueno Station, cross the street directly in front of you towards the big and very hard to miss toy store then go down any one of the several little streets leading straight ahead past said store. Depending on your particular shopping and entertainment interests, a visit to Ameya can take anywhere from an hour to the better part of a day.

Ameya is a collection of several narrow parallel streets running through the area. Expect large crowds, especially on weekends, but the only time it gets really bad is during major sale periods (like right after New Year’s). In addition to the main streets you’ll also find some little alleys and side streets, some of which lead indoors or even underground, scattered about. As for the stores themselves, many are half store half outdoor stall. While you can find a little bit of everything, Ameya is particularly known for food and clothing (primarily discount items and foreign imports). Even if those things don’t especially interest you, it’s still worth walking through to see the many different and unusual types of food for sale and to get an idea of what Japanese shopping streets are like.

Ameya at Night

If you’re not looking to shop, Ameya contains restaurants and snack stands of all types and a large number of arcades and pachinko parlors. And if you leave the market to the north, you’ll immediately run into a main road with lots of karaoke parlors, making it a great area to try out some of Japan’s most popular forms of entertainment. Overall, I highly recommend at least a quick visit to Ameya for anyone who is in Japan for the first time.

Ueno Park

My mom in Ueno park during cherry blossom season.

Ueno Park isn’t really the kind of park with a bit of grass and a swing set (though there’s probably one of those in there somewhere). Instead, it’s a large sprawling area more akin to Central Park in New York City. While walking around and enjoying the natural beauty is a nice way to pass some time (especially during cherry blossom season (generally late March through early April), the main draws are the numerous museums and other attractions found within the park. To get to the park, leave Ueno station by the main exit and then cross the large road to your right. You’ll see a set of stairs leading into the park right next to the entrance to the Keisei Ueno Airport Line station. It’s almost impossible to miss. While it doesn’t take all that long to just stroll through the park a bit, many of the attractions inside can easily occupy one to three hours each.

If you just want to walk around the park and take in the scenery, there’s no particular route you should follow and you’ll find map boards scattered throughout (you can also get a map of your own at the tourist office in Ueno station). This is a particularly good place to do to see Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. The exact season varies slightly by year but is usually from late March through early or mid-April.

If you want to see the sights, Ueno park contains a few shrines and temples, though none of them are particularly impressive. Instead, follow the maps to Ueno Zoo or one of the area’s many museums. I may talk more in-depth about some of these in the future, but for now here’s a quick overview of the major sites found in Ueno Park.

The lake in Ueno Zoo

Ueno Zoo: As far as zoos go, it’s a bit on the small side but it contains some animals you don’t see much in the US such as Japanese snow monkeys and red pandas. There’s also an old pagoda and a lake covered in beautifully flowering water plants during the summer months. But the zoo’s most popular attraction by far is the giant panda on loan from China. In fact, it’s the only place in Japan where you can see one.

The path to the Tokyo National Museum

The Tokyo National Museum: This is one of my favorite museums in Japan. It contains several large buildings featuring a wide variety of displays primarily focused on Japanese art and history. If you don’t have time to visit a lot of more specialized museums during your stay in Japan, a visit to Tokyo National gives you a good overview of just about everything including ancient Japanese paintings, carvings, clothing, jewelry, weapons and armor, history, statues, and more. It also features English translations of many of the signs and displays, something a lot of Japanese museums lack. If you only plan to visit one or two museums while in Japan, this is the one to see.

A cast of The Thinker at the National Museum of Western Art

The National Museum of Western Art: This museum is primarily used for a variety of special exhibits but the permanent collection is nice (though rather small), and includes a number of Rodin’s works. But do you really want to spend your time in Japan looking at Western art?

This whale makes the Museum of Nature and Science hard to miss.

The National Museum of Nature and Science: This place is instantly recognizable by the giant whale statue out front. There are some very nice dinosaur and rock exhibits as well as an interesting section on early Japanese people (around 3000+ years ago). However, the museum has very little English so there isn’t much to do beyond looking at the displays.

A recreation of a typical Japanese house in the 50's at the Shitamachi Museum.

The Shitamachi Museum: Though small, this museum on Tokyo life in the early to mid 1900’s is fun to visit. It’s a very hands-on place and includes a collection of old rooms and buildings you can walk around inside. It really gives you a good idea of what Japanese people lived like 100 and 50 years ago and how much things have changed since then. There isn’t a whole lot of English (actually, there aren’t a whole lot of signs in general since it’s more hands-on) but the museum has a staff of volunteer guides, some of whom can speak English, who are more than happy to show you around and explain the exhibits.

As you can see, Ueno has a lot to see and do. Whether you’re after shopping, entertainment, or a bit of history and culture, you’re sure to find something to interest you.

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The Japanese Look

By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, February 14, 2011

My co-workers at my old teaching job

If you’re a foreigner in Japan, one thing you quickly get used to is sticking out. In the US you’ll likely see people with all different skin and hair colors throughout a normal day. In Japan, however, the vast majority of the population is Japanese and the largest minority is Koreans (who look quite a lot like native Japanese). So, unless they have a very strong Asian heritage, foreigners in Japan stick out like a sore thumb. With my dark hair, I can pass as a Japanese person from behind if it’s a bit dark out (so they can’t see my skin color), but that’s about it.

Geisha

Anyway, I’m not one of those people who says that all Japanese (or all Asians) look alike. Even discounting clothing and hairstyles, skin tone and facial features can vary significantly from person to person. But they do have quite a lot in common as well. First off, their skin. If Americans and Europeans are white and Africans and Islanders are black, what are Asians? The traditional answer is yellow, but Japanese skin tone usually strikes me as more of a brown or tan. If Japanese people do anything to alter their skin color they’ll lighten it a bit as being pale is considered a mark of traditional Japanese beauty (think of Geisha with their powdered white skin).

A busy day in Asakusa

Next up, hair. Every native Japanese person has jet black hair which eventually grays as they get old. From what I’ve seen, most Japanese people have naturally straight hair as well. Because everyone has the same hair color, it’s quite common for people (especially women) to dye their hair after they get out of high school (since many schools don’t allow dyed hair). Around 99% of Japanese people who dye their hair dye it the exact same shade of reddish brown (a mahogany of sorts). Because, while they want to stand out (that’s why they dyed their hair), they don’t want to be seen as deviating too far from the group either (in Japan, sticking out is best done as a group). But this isn’t the post to discuss Japanese views on individuality. Long story short, most people in Japan either have their natural black hair (or gray if they’re old) or dyed mahogany hair. Though you’ll run into the rare rebel with their hair dyed bright red, blonde, or some other shade and the even rarer half Japanese person who naturally has hair of a different color. But while hair color is often the same, hair styles can vary considerably. Some are pretty similar to what you’d see in the US but others are pretty unique. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a good photo set of popular Japanese hair styles but I will mention that a lot of girls let their hair hang down in front so that it covers their forehead down to around the top of their eyes, which is something I don’t remember seeing very often in the US.

Some friends of mine

As far as eye color goes, Japanese people have naturally dark eyes. From what I can tell, brown is the most common color. I don’t think it’s the only one, but you certainly won’t be seeing any blue eyed Japanese (unless they’re not full Japanese or wearing colored contracts).

Some of my old students and their homeroom teacher.

With all that taken into account, Japanese people do look a lot alike. Especially when you factor in clothing since nearly every businessman seems to wear the same suit and most junior high and high schools have set uniforms for students to wear. So, like I said in the beginning, if you’re a foreigner in Japan, you’re going to stick out. Most Japanese people are too polite to call attention to the fact (the possible exception being little kids), but being the only non-Asian person around is something that you’ll have to get used to even if you’re only staying in Japan for a couple of weeks.

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Sushi

By Josiah Lebowitz
Friday, February 11, 2011

My mom and I at a kaiten zushi .

When most foreigners think of Japanese food, sushi is probably the first word that comes to mind. While sushi is hardly the be all end all of Japanese cuisine, it’s a favorite among many Japanese as well. But going out for sushi in Japan is a bit different than going out for sushi in the US…

First off, let’s clear up a common misconception. The word sushi actually refers to the rice, which is a short grained fairly sticky rice cooked with rice vinegar and a bit of sugar. So sushi doesn’t mean raw fish. In fact, there are many common kinds of sushi that entirely lack fish (raw or otherwise) and some with cooked fish. If you want to talk about raw fish, the word you’re looking for is sashimi (sah-she-me) but, just as sushi doesn’t have to include fish or seaweed, sashimi doesn’t have to include rice.

Now, any roll that’s named after a US state or city doesn’t exist in Japan, which makes perfect sense if you think about it. So don’t expect to be eating California rolls and Philadelphia rolls. Actually, don’t expect to be eating a lot of rolls at all. Rolled sushi, or maki (mah-key), can be found at any Japanese sushi restaurant, but the vast majority of sushi is nigiri (knee-gee-ree), which is a piece of fish (or whatever) laying on top of a small block of rice. As a note, nigiri often doesn’t include any nori (the seaweed that maki sushi is wrapped in), it’s just rice, fish (or whatever), and sometimes a little wasabi.

Now there are three main types of sushi restaurants in Japan. First off are your really fancy expensive restaurants. These are the closest to the sushi restaurants you’ll most often find in the US. Expect elaborately designed and presented sushi at a premium price. Though, once again, expect to find more nigiri sushi and less maki sushi than in the US. You’ll probably also get some straight up sashimi in the form of plain cubes or slices of raw fish.

Next up are sushi bars. A lot of Japanese restaurants in the US have sushi bars where you sit at a bar, tell the chef what sushi you want, and watch as he makes it for you. This is pretty much the same thing, except that sushi and sashimi are usually the only things on the menu. Your average sushi bar is a good bit cheaper than the fancy restaurants, but still a little expensive (at least if you eat more than a few plates).

Me and a Japanese friend at a kaitenzushi restaurant.

If you want a good sushi meal that won’t break the bank, do what the locals do and head for a kaitenzushi restaurant. Kaintenzushi, or conveyor belt sushi, is extremely rare in the US (though I know of a few places scattered across the country) but in Japan it’s the most common type of sushi restaurant around. But you’re probably wondering what I mean by conveyor belt, so let me explain. At a kaitenzushi restaurant you sit down at a bar (though some have tables as well) and there’s usually some sushi chefs behind the bar, ready to take your order. But you may not have to order at all. See, there’s a small conveyor belt running the length of the bar with all sorts of sushi on it. If you see one you like, just grab the plate as it passes by. At your seat, or on the conveyor, you’ll also find jars of soy sauce and containers of pickled ginger and wasabi so just take what you want and stick it on a plate for later (sometimes a little plate is provided, if it’s not you can use an empty sushi plate). You never know exactly what is going to show up on the conveyor (it depends on the time of day, what types of sushi are most popular at that particular restaurant, and the like) so if don’t see the sushi you want you can call the nearest chef and tell him. Though you’ll probably either have to know some basic Japanese or be at a restaurant with a picture menu in order to do so.

One other thing you’ll find at kaitenzushi restaurants is green tea. There’ll be a mug at or near your seat along with a container of green tea powder. Spoon some into your mug then look around for a nearby faucet thing. That’s for the tea. Put your mug under it (usually pushed against a button of some sort) and hot water will come out. It’s all really convenient and you get all the tea you can drink for free. Unfortunately, even if you manage to find a kaitenzushi restaurant in the US, these hot water faucets are always missing. Probably because some idiot would burn himself and sue…

Finally, as you finish your sushi, stack the plates up to the side since that’s how your bill is calculated. Each plate color has a set value so when you’re ready to pay, the waitress will count your plates in order to calculate the total. All kaitenzushi restaurants have a different pricing system, so keep an eye out for a sign or menu which will list the cost of each plate type. Regardless though, you shouldn’t have to spend much. Prices per plate (with most plates containing two pieces of sushi each) generally run from around 100 – 400 Yen (around $1 – $4), and if you’re lucky you can find a kaitenzushi restaurant which charges only 100 Yen for most or all of the items on their menu. So yes, it’s perfectly possible to eat a full meal of sushi for under $10 or $15. And, in Japan, you can expect excellent fresh fish no matter how cheap the restaurant.

Sushi Types

A fancy kaitenzushi restaurant.

To prepare you for sushi without California rolls, here’s a quick overview of some of the more common types of sushi you’ll see in Japan (note that exact names can vary slightly by restaurant).

Kappa Maki: A rolled sushi with cucumber. Also known as kyuuri maki.
Kanpyo Maki: A rolled sushi with pieces of pickled gourd inside.
Natto Maki: A rolled sushi with fermented soybeans inside (note that many foreigners, and even some Japanese for that matter, can’t stand natto so be careful)
Inari: Pouches of tofu skin filled with sweet rice.
Tamago: Sushi with strips of sweet omelet on top.
Maguro: Basic tuna sushi. Note that there are many different cuts of tuna, all with different tastes and textures, some of which can be pretty expensive.
Toro: Fatty tuna. It’s a bit more expensive than regular maguro.
Samon: Salmon. Many restaurants have two different cuts of salmon, a regular one and a slightly more expensive one that may still have a little skin left on it (my personal favorite).
Tai: Red snapper.
Kani: Crab. Unlike in the US, crab sushi is usually nigiri, not maki.
Ebi: Shrimp. It’s usually pretty obvious.

Actually, that’s nowhere near a complete menu at your average Japanese sushi restaurant (kaitenzushi or otherwise) but it should be enough to get you started. If you don’t have any dietary restrictions (or can least recognize whatever it is you can’t eat), it’s fun to just go to a kaitenzushi restaurant and try out whatever interesting looking plates pass by. You know what you may end up liking…

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