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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Religion in Japan

By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, February 3, 2011

Zojoji is famous for its new years celebation.

Japan’s two major religions are Buddhism, which was first introduced to the country in 552, and Shintoism, which is their native religion. Christianity, which was brought to Japan in 1549, is the country’s largest minority religion, though it claims less than 1% of the population.

The famous Zenkoji Shrine in Nagano

You’ll find shrines (Shinto) and temples (Buddhist) everywhere in Japan. Some are enormous buildings with elaborate carvings and others are smaller and more subdued. Some have expansive grounds including well-tended gardens and forests, others are squeezed onto small lots in the middle of a crowded part of town. Many include cemeteries, though that isn’t always the case. And, while there are newer shrines and temples to be found, many are hundreds of years old.

A Japanese cemetary

Shinto shrines are easily recognizable by their tori gates, which are usually a reddish orange in color (though most shrines don’t have nearly as many as the one in the photo below.

A whole lot of tori gates

Shintoism revolves around a combination of nature spirits and ancestor worship. In fact, many Japanese families have a small alter in their house where they pray to the spirits of departed loved ones. Unlike Christianity, there are no weekly Shinto services or anything like that. Instead, people visit their local shrine on holidays and when they have something in particular they want to pray for. Some shrines which are said to be particularly good for certain types of prayers (such as prayers for children or prayers for good grades) receive visitors from all across the country. Shinto priests can also be called on to perform a variety of purification ceremonies, such as purifying the land before beginning construction on a new building or removing restless spirits from a supposedly haunted area.

A Shinto priest going about his duties

When visiting a shrine, many people start by washing their hands in a basin of holy water and then burning incense (though not all shrines have basins and incense burners). They then approach the shrine itself. While some of the more famous and elaborate shrines allow you to walk through the building (either on your own or as part of a tour), smaller shrines only allow visitors to climb the steps and look into the inner chamber. There will be a large box there where you can toss in some coins as an offering. You’re then supposed to clap your hands twice, close your eyes, and spend a moment praying for whatever it is you want (be it health, success, a good score on your big English test, or the like). You then pull the rope (if there is one) to ring a bell and you’re done.

Bad fortunes tied to a tree in Nikko

Many shrines also sell charms for things like safe childbirth, good grades, and all the other things Japanese people typically pray for. If you’re still not sure if you’ve done enough, you can buy a prayer board (a small wooden plaque), write you prayer on it, and hang it up. You can also get your fortune told (a particularly popular activity around at the beginning of the year). Unlike most American fortunes which can get pretty specific, Japanese ones tend to boil down to how lucky you’ll be, with several different degrees ranging from the best luck to the worst luck. But if your fortune isn’t so great, you can tie the paper to a specially designated cord or tree to negate it.

The famous daibutsu in Kamakura

For people who haven’t been in Japan long, Buddhist temples really aren’t much different than Shinto shrines. Though they’re rather easy to tell apart as temples lack tori gates (they often have a very large and thick gate instead) and have at least one statue of the Buddha, generally in a fairly obvious place (though you can find him in poses other than the well-known one in the above photo). As with Shintoism, people don’t attend regular services (other than monks) and primarily visit temples on holidays and when they have something to pray for. Buddhist temples often tend to be a bit larger and bit less elaborate than Shinto shrines (though some of the Buddha statues are pretty impressive).

Golden Buddha statues

Although Buddhism and Shintoism aren’t in agreement on many matters, most Japanese people (Shinto priests and Buddhist monks aside) are actually a mix of both and see no problem with the inherent contradictions. Perhaps because, while just about everyone in Japan is religious, they’re only nominally so. The main exception would be Christians and cultists (yes, Japan does have a handful of weird cults scattered throughout the country) who tend to be far more dedicated to their religions and will actually stand on street corners or go door to door searching for new converts. During my first stay in Japan, I had a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Japanese, of course) come to the door of my out of the way apartment and ran into some protestant women (also Japanese), talking to people on the street. I’ve also heard of the occasional Mormon missionaries going door to door as well, though all of these are far less common in Japan than they are in the US. Still, while most Japanese may not take their religion as seriously as many Americans do, it’s interesting to see a country where religion is literally everywhere and has such complete acceptance.


Japan’s Islands

By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, February 2, 2011


As you can see in the above map (gotten from Google Maps), Japan is much more than a single island. In fact, Japan is spread across five large islands and thousands of smaller ones (though most aren’t inhabited). Today we’re going to take a quick look at each of the five large islands and what they’re known for.



Honshu is Japan’s main island. It’s also the largest, stretching 810 miles from North to South. All of Japan’s most famous locations such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and the Japanese Alps can be found there. Because it’s so long, the weather can vary considerably depending on where you are. The Japanese Alps (for example) have many famous ski areas and were the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, Tokyo tends to stay in the low forties to mid-fifties on winter days and hardly ever receives any snow.

Because Honshu is such a large and diverse place, and home to most of Japan’s international airports, it’s also the only island that most tourists ever see. And while there’s no end to interesting places to visit there, the other islands shouldn’t be sold short either.



Situated in the far North, Hokkaido has one thing that much of the rest of Japan lacks. Lots of empty space. Famous for its national parks, hiking, and skiing, Hokkaido is the place to go if you want to get back to nature and avoid the hustle and bustle of the big cities and popular tourist sites on Tohoku. Though, the lack of development means that its train system is far less extensive than that on most of the other islands, so you may need a car to see many of its sites.

Hokkaido is also home to the Ainu, and indigenous non-Japanese group who bare many similarities to the American Indians or Eskimos. While the Ainu population has shrunk considerably since the Japanese started seriously colonizing Hokkaido in 1300’s, there are still places to go to see Ainu villages and purchases traditional Ainu crafts.



Shikoku is set off Japan’s East coast down near Hiroshima. Although it’s a separate island, there are numerous bridges connecting it to Tohoku so you can get there not only by plane but by train, car, bus, and even bike as well.

While there are many things to see on Shikoku, including one of Japan’s best known onsen (hot springs), it’s most famous for its 88 Buddhist temples associated with the priest Kukai. Devout believers will expound the benefits of making a pilgrimage to visit every single one (which, thanks to the modern train system) only takes about two weeks instead of the two months that it used to. Non-Buddhists, however, are better off just stopping at a couple of the most famous ones and then moving on to the region’s other attractions.



Kyushu is to the South between Honshu and Okinawa. It played an important role in history as the small island port of Dejima off of Nagasaki is the only place in which foreigners were allowed to dock and stay during Japan’s period of isolation, which lasted from 1635 - 1853. When Perry forced Japan to open its door to foreign trade, the area quickly grew into a prosperous entryway for merchants and visitors alike. As such, it’s one of the most Westernized parts of Japan and features far more Western style buildings than you’ll see in any other part of the country.



Okinawa is the name of not only an island (which is admittedly a bit too small to call one of Japan’s “large” islands) but an entire island chain in the extreme South of Japan. It’s semi-tropical and, as such, is the beach resort of choice for Japanese travelers who can’t make it all the way to Hawaii on their vacation. It’s also the home of the U.S. military base (built there after World War II) so you’ll find a bit more English than in other parts of Japan. However, some of the locals still harbor resentment towards Americans over the base, so its presence isn’t entirely beneficial to travelers.

Okinawa was actually its own kingdom before the Japanese took over in 1609 so the food, culture, and life style is all a bit different than you’ll find elsewhere in Japan. Like Hawaii, Okinawa tends to be slower paced and more relaxed that much of the rest of the country. It’s also home to some excellent diving and snorkeling locations and a variety of rare plants and animals.

So that, in a nutshell, is the main Japanese islands. While I would recommend that first time visitors stick to Honshu due to its ease of access and many famous destinations, anyone making a return visit would do well to do a bit of research on the other islands and see if one of them might make for an appealing trip.


Riding Trains & Subways

By Josiah Lebowitz
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There are many different types of trains but they can be grouped into two basic categories. Normal trains run just about everywhere, go at a modest speed, and are basically what people take the vast majority of the time. A local train will stop at every station along its line but some lines also have rapid, express, or limited express trains which only stop at the larger stations (and therefor go a bit faster). While normal trains are great for traveling to a lot of places, if you're going somewhere really far away you're going to want one of Japan’s famous shinkansen (bullet trains). They cost extra to ride and only stop at a handful of stations but they can cover long distances in no time. But no matter what type of train you ride, you can be sure that it will be clean, safe, and highly punctual (while delays can happen, they’re rare and usually very brief).

Naturally, you can't travel between any two points on only a single train. Often you'll have to switch trains mid trip, possibly several times. Fortunately, you don't need to buy separate tickets for every train as most of Japan's train systems are run by the JR (Japan Rail Company). Because of this, prices are based on the distance between your starting and ending point, not how many trains you need to take to get there. So long as you don’t leave the station, your route doesn’t matter, just the distance.

A small train station in Nikko

Train stations typically have a bank of automated ticket machines (most of which have a button to switch the interface to English) where you select the ticket you want and put in your money. Tickets are sold by price, not by location. To find out how expensive a ticket you need to reach your destination you can check the big map that every station has near the ticket machines, find your destination, and read the listed price. Unfortunately, only the bigger stations have an English board but you can look up the price ahead of time on the extremely useful Hyperdia search engine, which is also great for finding routes, checking train schedules, and the like. Be sure to bookmark it you’re planning to visit Japan as you’ll likely be using it a lot.

If you still don’t know how expensive of a ticket to buy, or the machine won’t let you buy one for the correct amount (this is common if you’re traveling a long distance), all stations have fare changing machines near their exit gates. Simply put in your ticket and then insert the amount of money shown and you’ll get a new ticket which can be used to exit the station. Note that these machines won’t refund your money if the ticket you bought was too expensive so when in doubt buy the cheapest ticket you can and use the machine at your destination to pay the difference.

So anyway, you buy a ticket, stick it in a slot on the gate that leads deeper into the station, and grab your ticket when it comes out the other end. NEVER FORGET YOUR TICKET since you'll need to stick it in another gate at your destination in order to leave the station (when leaving you don't get the ticket back, unless you got a round trip ticket, day pass, or the like). It's worth noting that really old stations might have an employee punching people's tickets instead of an automated gate.

A normal train station platform

So, what are the costs? Depends. If you're just going one or two stops and they're all close together a ticket might just cost 100 – 200 Yen. Traveling long distances, however, can easily cost several thousand Yen or more. Then there's extra fees. For example, many trains have Green Cars. They're special cars with two floors and nicer seats, plus you get a reserved seat (which regular cars lack). Unsurprisingly, if you want to ride in a Green Car you need to buy an extra Green Car ticket, which are available from special machines found on the train platforms. Also, if your trip plan involves riding on a shinkansen or some limited express trains you'll need to purchase additional tickets for them along with your regular ticket (which are either put through the ticket gate at the same time as your regular ticket or shown to the conductor onboard the train, depending on the station). Look for special shinkansen ticket machines near the normal ones or ask the person in the ticket booth if you’re stuck. Shinkansen tickets are also based on distance traveled and can easily run several thousand yen depending on how far you’re going. So a several hour shinkansen ride might cost you 4000-5000 yen for your regular ticket plus an additional 3000-4000 for the shinkansen ticket, and that's just one way (sometimes, discounted round trip tickets are available). Note that you can save some money by getting a ticket that doesn’t include a reserved seat, though there’s always the danger you’ll be stuck standing for part or even all of the trip. I never buy reserved seats and I’ve yet to see a shinkansen so full that I couldn’t find an empty seat, but it could happen.

If you're planning to visit Japan and aren’t just going to stay in a single city for the duration of your trip, you may want to order a Japan Rail Pass, which gives you unlimited rides on most trains, a few busses, and one ferry for free during a span of one to several weeks. Instead of buying tickets, just show your pass to the person in the ticket booth and he’ll let you through. Note that, unless you pay extra, the pass is only good for unreserved seats. Depending on how long you plan on staying, a Japan Rail Pass could costs up to several hundred dollars but it’ll quickly pay for itself if start riding the shinkansen (a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, for example, costs a couple of hundred dollars on its own).

A Tokyo subway station

Subways (the best way to get around much of Tokyo and several other major cities) are similar to trains, except that they only cover single cities (usually far more extensively than the local trains), never run more than a few dollars for a ticket, and don’t accept the Japan Rail Pass.

When riding a train, grab a seat if you can but be prepared to stand. I've been on trains that were nearly empty and trains where people were literally jammed in like sardines (which is why you really don't want to travel the wrong direction during the morning rush).

A crowded train during rush hour

It's considered rude to talk on the phone while on a train and there are lots of signs reminding people to put their cellphones on vibrate (or 'manner mode' as it’s called in Japan). Eating on the train is also considered rude (unless you’re in a Green Car or on an Shinkansen) but people occasionally do it anyway. In addition, most cars have several seats at the end that are set aside for people with injuries, pregnant women, people with babies, etc. However, if there aren't any people like that in the car said seats are up for grabs and, like the rest of the non-reserved seating on a train, seats are on a first come first serve basis. If you can't get a seat, find a place to stand, hold onto a bar or one of the rings hanging from the ceiling so you don't fall over if the train jerks unexpectedly, and try to grab a seat when someone nearby gets off.

Common train pastimes include cellphone e-mail, MP3 players, books and magazines, portable video game systems, and sleeping (I often wonder how many people accidently sleep through their stop) so if you're going to be riding the trains a lot get into a habit of bringing something to keep you occupied, though make sure to watch the scenery during your first trip on any given route, as you never know what you might see.

The inside of a typical Japanese train or subway

Oh, one last thing. While some trains announce upcoming stops in English and Japanese, many don't so pay close attention to announcements (listen for place names), the route map or electric display over many doors, and/or the place name signs outside the train at the stations (which are always in both English and Japanese) to figure out where you are.


Shoes and When Not to Wear Them

By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, January 31, 2011

A typical school entry hall

When entering a house, apartment, school, some restaurants, some hotels, many shrines and temples, a few museums, and a random assortment of other buildings in Japan you can't wear your shoes. Normally there's either a spot right outside the building or a little entry area where you can take off your shoes. These are typically pretty easy to recognize since they're a bit lower than the rest of the building and you need to remove your shoes before stepping up to the higher area (although sometimes it's all flat so you just need to pay attention). Some places have little shoe lockers where you're supposed to put your shoes while at other you just leave them on the floor. And then there’s a few where you’re given a plastic bag in which to carry your shoes (this mainly happens if you’ll be leaving by a different way than you entered.

But just because you take your shoes off doesn't necessarily mean you'll be going around barefoot or in your socks either. On tatami floors (tatami is a floor made up of mats woven out of straw) you can't wear anything other than socks. On other types of floors, little slippers are usually provided for guests to wear. Said slippers vary from place to place but they're usually one size fits all (although sometimes that fit is pretty bad) and can often slip off your foot rather easily if you're not paying attention. Naturally, if you're going from regular floor to tatami there will be a place to take those slippers off and leave them while you're on the tatami. Some places also have bathroom slippers. These are a tad less common but in some bathrooms you'll have to leave your slippers either right inside or right outside and put on a special pair of bathroom slippers.

Rows of shoe lockers

Now that works ok if you're visiting someone's house, eating in a traditional Japanese restaurant, or visiting a shrine but it'd be a pain to wear those slippers all the time at a school or some other place that you spend a lot of time. There's where indoor shoes come in. There's nothing special about them, they're just a pair of shoes designated for indoor wear. For example, when I go to work in Japan I wear my sneakers on the way there. When I get inside, I take off the sneakers and put them in my shoe locker where I keep my other pair of shoes which I wear exclusively indoors. If I want to go back outside, I need to swap shoes again. Naturally, shoes that are easy to slip in and out of are a big plus.

I suppose all this shoe swapping helps keep floors a bit cleaner and reduces wear and tear on things like tatami and carpet, though there’s probably something a bit deeper to it as well. Anyway, while Japanese people are usually fairly tolerant of foreigners making breaches of etiquette (easy to do if you haven’t spent time researching Japanese manners), wearing your shoes where you’re not supposed to is still a big taboo so try to be careful and take your cue from the people around you.


Grocery Stores

By Josiah Lebowitz
Friday, January 28, 2011

A Japanese Grocery Store

The first thing you'll notice about grocery stores (or suupaa, as they’re called) in Japan is that they're a lot smaller than ones in the US. Now that's to be expected in places like Tokyo where there usually just isn't enough room for a giant store. However, even in places that have plenty of space the biggest grocery stores are rarely more than 1/3 - 1/2 the size of your average Safeway, City Market, or any of the other big US grocery store chains. The stores aren't the only thing that's smaller. If you go into any US grocery store I'm sure you're all used to seeing two things by the entrance, those plastic hand baskets you can use to carry around groceries if you don't plan on getting much and the nice big shopping carts. Japan has the plastic baskets (which are pretty much identical) but carts are completely different. A Japanese shopping cart is nothing more than a small metal frame with wheels that you can use to hold one or two of those plastic baskets (since I first came to Japan, some US stores have started using these frames too). So, unless you want to try pushing multiple carts around at once, your entire purchase is limited to what you can fit in one (or maybe two) of those plastic baskets.

Now people in Japan eat more or less the same amount of food as Americans do (mostly different things though), so what’s the reason for the smaller baskets? Well, in Japan people really like fresh ingredients. Part of the reason for this is that many apartments don’t have room for the full size fridges, freezers, and large pantries we have in the US. My first apartment in Japan had a fridge/freezer about the size of the ones you find in hotel rooms and even the larger fridge in my current apartment is still much smaller than any I’ve ever had back in the US.

The Kitchen in a Small Japanese Apartment

There’s also some tradition which plays into it. In Japan, the “ideal” family is still one where the husband works and the wife manages the household. When I say manage, I mean a bit more than just cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids (though that’s certainly part of it) and there are quite a lot of married working women these days as well, but Japanese family life is a subject best left for another day. Anyway, the point is that when you combine a lack of storage with a stay at home wife and a general love of really fresh food, it makes sense for the wife to go out every day to buy ingredients for just two or three meals at a time.

And, as long as I'm talking about size, it's worth noting that food often comes in smaller packages than in the US. For example, ice cream never comes in anything bigger than a pint and even those are pretty rare, with most ice cream coming in little personal size containers (about the equivalent of a large scoop). And you’ll never find galleon sized containers of juice or milk. About the only things you can find in large quantities are rice and a few other long lasting Japanese staples (such as soy sauce).

Naturally, Japanese grocery stores sell mostly Japanese food (big surprise there). You can find a little bit of American and Italian stuff such as cereal and tomato sauce, but don't expect much of a selection. There are also some Japanese knock offs of said American and Italian items, which are typically cheaper but usually doesn't taste quite the same. Then there are some American staples, such as peanut butter, turkey, pretzels, and root beer, which are almost impossible to find.

Every grocery store also has large selection of cheap boxed meals, or bento, which are very popular both with commuters and some school kids. Bento are made fresh every day at the store and come in all types but a few common kinds include sushi, onigiri (rice balls), and various noodle and rice dishes. They tend to cost only several hundred yen (several dollars) a piece and are usually very good.

A Grocery Store on the Outskirts of Tokyo

Many grocery stores also have their own bakery. Japanese bakeries are a lot different than US ones and I’ll be giving them their own write-up another time so for now suffice it to say that said bakeries include mostly buns, pastries, and snack type breads. Another thing many grocery stores have is little sweet shops that sell small cakes and the like. Once again, most of these items are made fresh daily in the store.

Prices really depend on what you're getting. Some things like seafood, which Japanese grocery stores have an excellent selection of, are very cheap (at least compared to the US) while others are extremely expensive (ice cream and many kinds of fruit, for example). Speaking of fruit, make sure you don't get the regular fruit mixed up with the gift fruit. Gift fruit is typically very big, very nice looking, and very very expensive. As the name suggests, you get it to give as a gift, not to eat yourself, and it’s typically sold in packs of one or two. Speaking of prices, it’s worth noting that, because of the love of fresh food, Japanese grocery stores often offer heavy discounts on many unsold products such as bento and meat shortly before closing time.

When you're ready to pay for your groceries you go to the cashier, takes your plastic basket off your cart, and stick it on the counter. The cashier then scans your items (reciting the price of each one as he/she does) while putting them in a new plastic basket. Then they'll often stick some plastic bags into your new basket (the magic number of bags seems to be two, at least that's the amount of bags I get 95% of the time regardless of how much I buy). If it looks like you're getting something that you might be eating soon (say a bento box or an ice cream cup) they'll add in a free set of chopsticks or a spoon as well.

A Small Produce Market

After paying, you take your basket to a nearby bagging area, which is basically a counter or table where you can put your basket while you transfer the contents from it to your bags (if the cashier didn’t give you any bags, they’ll be waiting for you here). Said tables usually have a damp cloth you can use to wet your fingers if you're having trouble getting a bag open and a place to put your basket once it's empty. After that, you're ready to grab your bags and head out (if you had a cart, remember to wheel it back to its place by the entrance).

And that's how you buy groceries in Japan. Personally, I love the bento, bakeries (which make far better bread than you’ll find in Safeway or City Market), and large selection of Asian foods. I’m less thrilled about the tiny package sizes, lack of peanut butter and a few other things I really love, and the extremely limited selection of things like cereal and cheese. So there’s certainly good and bad points. But if you’re ever in Japan, even if you plan on eating out for most of your meals, it’s worth it to take a look in a Japanese grocery store just to see all the new and different kinds of food.

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