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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Family Life

By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, February 10, 2011

A standard modern Japanese pre-fab house

Japanese culture is very heavily based around the traditional family unit, which is made up of a mother, father, children, and often grandparents (traditionally the father’s parents) living together in the same house. These days, the traditional Japanese family structure has become a bit less common, especially in regards to married couples living with the husband’s parents. But just like the “typical” American family is a working dad, stay at home mom, two kids (a boy and girl), and a dog in a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, this is the “typical” Japanese family. Let’s take a quick look at each member’s roles within the household.

The Father
In Japan (as in just about every other country), the man of the family is expected to be the provider. His role is to get a good job and earn money to support his family. If he works for a company or other large or medium sized business he also has a host of obligations he must fulfill to be a good employee, but that’s a whole different topic. Being a good father is secondary to being a good provider and as some jobs in Japan leave employees with almost no time to spend at home during the average week (other than sleeping), it’s fairly common for husbands to become rather estranged from their wives and children. But, I’ll go into detail about Japanese business life (the good and the bad) in a future post. Fortunately, not all jobs are like that and there are many Japanese men who are both good employees and good fathers.

The Mother

A Japanese woman in a traditional bridal kimono

The mother is the master of the house. Her duties include all the “typical motherly tasks” such as cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry. She is also the one in charge of raising the children, seeing to it that they’re properly fed and clothed, and making sure they study hard. No matter how late her husband works, the proper Japanese wife should always have a warm meal and a bath waiting for him when he returns (bathing is a very important part of Japanese culture which I’ll also be discussing in a future post).

Interestingly enough though, when I say that the wife is the master of the house, I mean that in more ways than you might think. For example, it’s traditionally the wife who manages the family’s finances. After collecting his pay, the husband turns it over to his wife to manage and she’s the one in charge of paying bills, balancing the budget, and the like. The husband, meanwhile, has no real control over his own finances and is instead given an allowance by his wife. In estranged marriages, it’s not unheard of for the wife to buy herself extravagant items with her husband’s money while leaving him with the equivalent of only $20 or $30 a week to spend on himself.

Of course, things aren’t always this way and there are a growing number of married women in the Japanese workforce. However, even working women still tend to take on the master of the house role in addition to their day jobs.

The Children

My old 4th grade class

Children are at the center of any Japanese family and ensuring that they receive a proper education is of paramount importance. So much so that, at times, when the husband needs to relocate for work, the rest of the family will stay behind (even for several years) so that the children’s education won’t be interrupted by the move to a new school (most families don’t take things to this extreme, but it does happen). While children do have leisure time and often do things with friends and devote themselves to various hobbies (watching TV, playing games, building models, playing sports, etc), their lives revolve around their schooling. As a note, Japan has a longer school year and longer school days than the US so kids spend quite a lot of time at school. This is especially true in junior high and high school when most children will join a school club and spend a large portion of their free time doing activities with the other club members. School clubs typically cover a very diverse range of subjects (just about any hobby or interest you can think of probably has a club at many schools) and school sports teams are actually considered clubs as well. Spending time working on group activities with likeminded students is considered so important that at many schools joining a club and attending all club meetings and activities is considered mandatory.

Because they’re often so busy with studying and their club, it’s fairly uncommon for teens to get part time jobs until after they finish high school. Even household chores are often kept to a minimum. But, in the end, kids are kids and Japanese kids aren’t all that different from the kids you’ll find in the US. Aside from being a bit more studious and a bit better behaved anyway. But Japanese schools and manners are subjects that deserve posts of their own.

The Grandparents
Traditionally, the oldest son inherits the family house. When he marries, his wife moves in with him and becomes a part of the family. However, even with the son and his wife becoming the new leaders of the family, it’s often his parents who still control things from behind the scenes. At least that’s how it used to be. In modern Japan things like family houses and family leaders aren’t all that common anymore. But it’s still somewhat common for a Japanese family to care for the husband’s parents.

So what is it that the grandparents do? As many Japanese men’s’ lives and identities revolve around their job, some aren’t sure what to do with themselves after retirement. In the end, they’ll often devote themselves to a hobby of some sort and let it occupy most of their time. Meanwhile, the grandmother’s job is basically to boss around and complain about her son’s wife (so yeah, stereotypical mother-in-law). She’ll also supply her son with extra money if she doesn’t feel that he’s getting enough allowance. When it comes to the grandchildren, the stereotypical Japanese grandparents are strict rather than doting, but I’m sure that’s not always the case in real life.

And that’s the Japanese family. I’m not sure how many modern families still fit this stereotype but when Japanese think of family life, this is what comes to mind. Just like Americans and our suburban family with the white picket fence.


Tokyo Overview

By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tokyo Tower and Zenkoji Shrine

As you probably know, Tokyo is Japan’s capital city and, with around 13 million people living there and many more coming in each day (for work or play) it can rival the likes of New York City, Shanghai, London, and any other major city you can think of.

While Tokyo has been around for over 800 years, it was a much smaller and less important place. It wasn’t until the shogun moved the government there in 1603 to distance it from the than marginalized emperor (who was left in the old capital city of Kyoto) that Tokyo began to grow into the giant metropolis that it is today. As the capital, Tokyo was in the center of Japan’s push for modernization after Perry opened the country to foreign trade and, despite being devastated by a major earthquake in the early 1900’s, it has continued to grow.

Tokyo Today

A very small portion of the Tokyo skyline

Tokyo is now one of the most modern cities in the world, the perfect example of the new high-tech Japan. While there are many traces remaining of old Japan, Tokyo really isn’t the best place to experience it (for that, you’re better off going to Kyoto, which I’ll talk about another day). When it comes to shopping and dining, you can find just about everything somewhere in the city and those looking for museums, shrines, and other more historical attractions won’t be disappointed either. Tokyo is also home to numerous sports games, concerts, festivals, and other special events. From onsen (hot springs) to fashion to sumo to electronics, no matter what aspect of Japan you want to experience, you’ll find it in Tokyo (or a short trip away). As such, it’s the perfect place to spend at least a few days getting acclimated to Japan learning just how diverse of a place it is.

Staying in Tokyo

A tiny Tokyo hotel room

There are hotels all over Tokyo. I recommend checking JAPANiCAN for one in a convenient location (near a major train station, perhaps). Though if you’re on a serious budget there are a variety of youth hostels and bargain priced accommodations (such as capsule hotels, which I’ll talk about another time) available. Restaurants are very easy to find and, if you’re in the right part of the city, you’ll probably even see a lot with English menus. In short, Tokyo is one of the easiest places in Japan to stay and eat. Just don’t expect a very big hotel room unless you’re willing to pay quite a lot for it as in Tokyo more than anywhere else in Japan, space is at a premium.

Getting Around

The morning rush at Ueno Station

When you first see a train and subway map of Tokyo, it looks something like a piece of modern art, or maybe like someone dropped a large pile of colored string. But don’t worry, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. Riding the trains and subways is easy (something I already wrote about) and many stations and trains have English maps and announcements. For those that don’t, you can pick up a free English route map at most larger stations and just use that. While Tokyo does feature a lot of train stations, the best way to get around is usually a combination of the Yamanote Line train (which runs a loop around the city that stops at most of the major areas) and the extensive Tokyo Metro subway system, which can get you just about anywhere. My father, who knows no Japanese, figured out the Metro in no time and had no problem making his way around the city without my help, so anyone can do it.

Notable Areas
Much like New York City has Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the like, Tokyo is divided into numerous smaller cities (or regions, if you prefer). I’ll be going more in-depth about what to see and do in them in future posts but for now here’s a quick overview of some of the main ones.


Cherry blossoms in Ueno Park

Ueno is home to one of the city’s largest train stations, lots of busy shopping streets, and the massive Ueno Park, which contains a zoo and several excellent museums. It’s also a good place to go if you’re looking for pachinko (Japanese gambling, which I’ll talk about another time) or capsule hotels.


A shopping street in Asakusa

Asakusa contains one of Tokyo’s most famous (and busiest) shrines, which is surrounding by a shopping arcade filled with restaurants, snack stands, and little souvenir shops. If you’re not going to be leaving Tokyo, this is probably the best place to get souvenirs and gifts for your friends.


Nighttime in Akihabara

Tokyo’s famous electric town is a great place to shop for electronics of any kind but it primarily caters fans of anime (Japanese cartoons), manga (Japanese comics), and video games. While the giant Yodobashi Camera department store is hard to miss, many of the best deals can be found in the tiny little shops which fill the buildings west of the train station. It’s also the place to go if you’re looking to try one of Japan’s famous maid cafes.


Nighttime in Shinjuku

Shinjuku is a popular area for both businesses and shopping but it also contains the city’s main nightlife district, with bars and clubs catering to all tastes from the high class to the seedy.


Trendy teens in Harajuku

One of the trendiest parts of the city among the young and hip, Shibuya includes famous sites like the Hachiko statue and Meiji Jingu Shrine and its Harajuku district is the place to go to see and be seen in the latest (and most outrageous) teen fashions.


Ginza at night

If none of the areas I’ve mentioned so far sound classy enough, than Ginza is the place for you. Featuring enormous fancy department stores, designer clothing stores for just about every major brand, and elaborate show rooms for companies such as Sony, Ginza is as high class as you could possible want. Unfortunately, the prices are just as high so you may want to stick to window shopping


Looking towards Odaiba

An artificial island built in Tokyo Bay, Odaiba has become a popular entertainment area. It features several large shopping malls (many with fun themed buildings), a miniature Statue of Liberty, several massive museums, one of the world’s largest Ferris wheels, and a fun onsen (Japanese hot spring) theme park. Whether you want to shop, learn, or just get a real onsen experience without having to leave Tokyo, Odaiba is a fun place to spend a day.

And that’s it for now. Tokyo has many other cities (though none of them are quite as famous) and I haven’t even scratched the surface of what to do in the ones I just listed, but we’ll be getting to that soon enough…


Useful Books and Web Sites

By Josiah Lebowitz
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Since Tuesday and Wednesday are travel and sightseeing days, it’s about time I started talking about where to go and what to see in Japan. Note that I may be jumping around a bit between different parts of Japan as the mood strikes me. But since I’m not writing an entire guide book, here’s some info on the various books and web sites I’ve used to plan my Japan trips.

Tour Books
I’ve used several different tour books during my visits to Japan, each of which has some pros and cons. Here’s a quick overview of them.

1. Fodor’s Japan
This was my primary guide during my first stay in Japan and it’s still my favorite. It follows the typical no-nonsense travel guide arrangement, breaking things down into cities or regions and listing things to see, places to eat, places to stay, and the like. Of all the guides I’ve used, this one seems to list the most sites and it does its best to cover a bit of everything. On the down side, the directions to some places are rather vague and it once led me onto the wrong bus, but overall it’s the best guide I’ve seen.

2. Frommer’s Japan
I got this book for my second stay in Japan since I needed an updated guide and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try a different book. The Fodor’s guide is written in a more casual and personal style than the Frommer’s, with the author often referencing trips she herself has made. Because of this, it usually has pretty good directions and lists some nice sights that you won’t find in the Frommer’s guide (though it leaves out others, so neither one has a real advantage there). The down side is that, as many parts of the guide are organized as trip plans (such as historical sites in Tokyo), they’re not always sorted by exact location so if you just want a list of all the places to see in Ueno (a section of Tokyo) you might have to flip through several different Tokyo trip plans to find them all. Detailed information for some sites is also a bit lacking but there’s still a lot to like about this guide.

3. Eyewitness Japan
This is the smallest guide of the three and I really wouldn’t recommend that anyone use it as their primary Japan guide since it lists the fewest sites and doesn’t go into a lot of detail, though it does have listings for some nice small towns that you won’t see in other books. Its hotel and restaurant lists aren’t very comprehensive either. So why would you want this guide? Mainly for the pictures. The Eyewitness guide is in full color and filled with photos and drawings of the areas it covers. These can give you an idea of whether or not something is worth visiting and it’s just a fun book to look at, making it a good supplement to a larger more complete guide.

4. Time Out Tokyo
This guide only covers Tokyo and some of the most popular day trip destinations nearby. However, since it only covers one area it goes into far greater depth than any of the other guides and you’ll find a lot of attractions, restaurants, events, and hotels listed here that you won’t see in the others. It’s well organized, has pretty good directions, and also contains some useful info for those looking to stay in Tokyo for longer than a typical vacation.

Web Sites
While my tour books have been very useful for figuring out what towns and cities I should visit and making basic trip plans, they can only go so far, and that’s where the following web sites come in.

1. Hyperdia
The single most useful web site for anyone visiting Japan. Just enter a starting point, destination, and time frame, and Hyperdia will plot you a route, letting you know exactly which trains to ride, how long the trip will take, and how much it will cost. It will even tell you when you need to buy special tickets and what kinds there are. Hyperdia contains information on all of Japan’s train and subway lines as well as domestic air routes. The only thing it doesn’t cover is buses but you probably won’t need to take many of those.

A few things worth noting.
1. Hyperdia generally returns several possible routes. Make sure to skim the list before deciding as the first one isn’t always the best.
2. It defaults to listing the prices for reserved seats on shinkansen and other special trains, though you can use the drop down boxes change those to less expensive (sometimes free) unreserved tickets to see how that affects the overall cost
3. By each train are links to an interval time table (which lists departure times for similar trains for the entire day, so you can easily find a backup in case you miss your planned train) and a list of all the train’s destinations (it can be useful to note the ones right before and after your stop).
4. Hyperdia lists many times in 24 hour format (1 PM is 13, etc) as do a lot of things in Japan.
5. If you want to avoid airplanes, shinkansen, or the like when doing your planning, you’ll find a set of check boxes near the search boxes.
6. Occasionally two stations have the same name, in which case they’ll be differentiated by region (i.e. “Kobe(Hyogo)”). Make sure you know which one you want and remember that stations aren’t always named after the towns they’re in (though that is usually the case).

No need to try and find hotels using your travel guide. JAPANiCAN has far more extensive listings (often at much better prices), an easy to use search engine, and is entirely free. You can book rooms directly from the site and it includes lots of information (including amenities, maps, and reviews) for each hotel. This is the site I use 95% of the time when booking hotels in Japan.

A few things worth noting.
1. Not all hotels in Japan have non-smoking rooms so if that’s important to you make sure to tell JAPANiCAN to list only the ones that do.
2. Many hotels have the option to reserve breakfast and sometimes supper as well. These meals are often excellent but prices vary wildly (often anywhere from around $10 - $80) so check them before you decide.
3. Some JAPANiCAN hotels have you pre-pay when you make your reservation while others only let you pay at the hotel itself. Note that a few smaller hotels don’t take credit cards.
4. If you absolutely can’t find a suitable hotel on JAPANiCAN (for example, the only ones listed on Miyajima island are very expensive) you’re probably best off resorting to a Google search instead of trying other major booking sites, as any remaining hotels are likely to be a bit obscure.

3. Japan Guide
If you’re having trouble finding much information about a particular tourist destination in your books, Japan Guide is probably the next place to check (though if it fails as well, a Google search will probably turn up something). It has details on many locations and also lists attractions that most guide books do not, so it’s always worth a look when making a sightseeing plan.

4. Mobile Narita
If you need a cellphone while in Japan but don’t have an international model (or don’t want to pay your carrier’s pricey global roaming rates) you can always rent one. There are several companies that rent phones and SIM cards but Mobile Narita is the cheapest one I’ve found. You can make a reservation on their web site and then pick up and drop off your phone right in Narita airport.

5. Japan Airlines
While there’s no real need to take domestic flights in Japan unless you’re in a big hurry or traveling from one end of the country to the other, if you do find yourself in need of a plan check JAL’s site before you go anywhere else as they often offer considerable discounts on tickets to people who reserve far enough in advance.

I think that will do it for now. It’s not a comprehensive list of all the books and sites I’ve looked at but it’s the best of them and more than enough to plan most Japan trips.



By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, February 7, 2011

In the US, your signature is a pretty big deal. And not just for signing credit card receipts and packages. It’s your signature that proves who you are on official documents and can be used to determine if someone forged your name on a check or some other important piece of paper. Japan, however, does things a bit differently. You still have to sign your name from time to time (on credit card receipts, for example) but the lack of cursive script and a very standardized writing system (each symbol has an official stroke order and everything) means signatures aren’t all that unique. At least not until your start talking about celebrities and professional athletes, who tend to have very elaborate autographs.

My hanko

To be honest, I’m really not sure if the issues I just mentioned have anything to do with why signatures aren’t so important in Japan but the bottom line is that they aren’t. If you want to open a bank account, fill out an official document, or even sign for a package you need a hanko. A hanko (see the image above) is a little cylinder several inches long with a rubber stamp on one end which contains the symbols for the owner’s last name (if there’s room, the first name might be included as well). When you’ve got something that needs stamping, you press the bottom of the hanko against a red ink pad and then against the paper. While foreigners can get away without having a hanko in many cases (such as signing for packages), having one is required for some tasks like opening a bank account.

If you haven’t guessed, that’s my hanko in the above photo. Since hanko don’t normally come in English I had to special order it and some Japanese people also special order elaborate custom hanko. For everyone else, there are plenty of stores which sell hanko for all of Japan’s more common last names. If you think this seems a bit insecure, I agree. It seems you could just walk in, buy some generic hanko for popular names and, with a bit of work, find the bank account of someone with the same hanko. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to happen Though I’m not sure if it’s due to Japan’s general lack of crime or if it means hanko are more secure than they seem.


Restaurants in Japan

By Josiah Lebowitz
Friday, February 4, 2011

I’ll be going in depth on many of the different types of food you can find in Japan in future posts, but for now here’s a quick overview of eating out in Japan.

Shinjuku at Night

Unless you’re in the middle of a large residential district, you’ll find restaurants and snack stands just about everywhere. In fact, you’ll probably see so many of them that deciding where to eat can become rather difficult. In the above picture, for example, the majority of those signs are for restaurants (and the next couple of streets over are just the same). Unsurprisingly, Japanese food dominates the Japanese restaurant scene. Gyudon (rice and beef bowls), soba and udon (Japanese buckwheat and wheat noodles respectively), ramen, sushi, tempura (fried and breaded seafood and vegetables), yakitori (teriyaki chicken cooked on a skewer), and more are all present in abundance. Though at times they’re a bit different than you may be used to from the US. Sushi, for example, is usually found in kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants and is considerably cheaper and a bit less fancy than what you usually see in the US. Japanese restaurants also tend to be a bit small and cramped compared to those in the US, with the smallest able to seat on a handful of customers at a time.

Eating out in Japan is also surprisingly cheap, at least if you avoid the fancy expensive restaurants. It’s very easy to get a full meal for $5 - $12, especially if you take advantage of Japan’s many excellent fast food restaurants (which feature much better food than your average US fast food chain). Of course, before you can eat and pay, you need to find a restaurant and order your food…

A plastic food display

Fortunately picking a restaurant is often simpler than you’d think, as many feature displays of expertly created plastic food out front which tells you at a glance what they serve and how much things cost. As a note, you know you’ve been in a Japan a bit too long when you start choosing one restaurant over another because their plastic food looked nicer. Even better, if you‘re having trouble telling the waitress what you want to order, you can always point to whatever you want in the plastic food display. Many restaurants that lack plastic food will have a picture menu instead, so you can easily see what’s what and point to the items you want. Which is very useful as you won’t find a lot of English menus outside of major tourist areas (and even then there are often many restaurants without them).

Waiters are usually pretty attentive, despite the fact that there’s no tipping, but at some restaurants you’ll need to flag them down if you want something. In fact, in many larger restaurants include a button specifically to call your waiter. Often, after serving your meal, the waiter will place the check on the table right away. Then, when you’re ready to leave, you take it to the main counter to pay. However, some fast food restaurants do things a bit differently. Upon entering, you’ll find a machine with buttons for each item on the menu. Basically you put your money in the machine and push the buttons for whatever it is you want and the machine will dispense tickets for each item. You then push the change button to reclaim any unused money, take a seat at the counter, and present the waiter with your tickets.

One other thing you’ll get at most restaurants is a moist towelette that you use to wipe your hands (and only your hands) before eating. Once you’re done with it, fold it and set it aside. If you need regular napkins to wipe your hands or face during the meal, you’ll usually find a napkin holder on or near your seat.

A Japanese KFC

Outside of Japanese restaurants, you’ll also find American and Italian ones, including a few familiar chains such as KFC, McDonald’s, and Denny’s. Though the menus are bound to be a bit different than what you’re used to as they’ve all been Japanized to varying degrees. But I’ll be talking about that more in future posts. You’ll also find a decent amount of Chinese, Korean, and Indian restaurants, most of which are pretty authentic with just one or two little changes (for example, all Indian restaurant seem to feature an egg curry that I’ve never seen anywhere else). Other types of foreign food, however, such as Mexican, are extremely rare. But, with so much great Japanese food available, you have to stay in Japan for quite a while before you start missing them.

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