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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By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, April 4, 2011

I wrote in a previous entry how the Japanese take pride in being a country of rice eaters. Despite the popularity of various types of noodles, bread never became a part of the Japanese diet until after the country’s big push for modernization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even now, bread is thought of as strictly a “Western food”. But that doesn’t mean modern Japanese people eschew bread. In fact, it’s is quite popular. Though, like most foreign foods, it’s given a strong Japanese twist.

A strangely named bakery near Tokyo Station.

While you can always buy your bread (or “pan” in Japanese) off a grocery store shelf, even in Japan, it’s a lot more fun to get fresh bread at a real bakery. Bakeries are surprisingly common in Japan, perhaps even more so than in many parts of the US. Larger grocery stores also tend to feature full bakeries (much nicer than the “bakeries” found in your local Safeway or City Market).

When shopping at a Japanese bakery it’s important to follow the proper procedure. First, when you enter the bakery you’ll find a stack of trays and a rack of tongs. Take a tray and some tongs before you start. The bread itself is arranged on trays on shelves around the store, often with signs noting the most popular kinds. When you see something you want, pick it up with the tongs (don’t use your hands) and put it on your tray. Once you’re done, take your tray to the counter and they’ll bag the bread for you (often using far more bags than seems necessary). If you get a loaf, they’ll even let you choose how many slices you want it cut into. But anyway, enough about shopping. Let’s talk about the bread itself…

Dinner Bread
Dinner bread is your typical loaf of sandwich bread. It’s pretty similar to standard US white bread, though it’s perfectly rectangular without any sort of rounded top. You can find whole wheat and rye dinner bread as well, though they’re a bit uncommon, and I’ve seen raisin and chocolate versions as well.

Because of the Japanese tendency to buy small portions of fresh food every day or two instead of stocking up, most dinner bread is sold in packs of 3 or 6 slices (4 is an unlucky number in Japanese), rather than as an entire loaf. As an interesting note, said packs never include the heal of the bread. The slices themselves are often thicker than what you’d see in the US. Sometimes it’s not a very big difference, but it’s not uncommon to see bread slices that are a full inch or two thick either.

Other Loaf Breads
While dinner bread is the primary “loaf bread” in Japan, many bakeries have a few of their own. French breads of various types (such as normal “French bread” and batards) are fairly common, but you’ll also find many that are obviously Japanese. Some of the more interesting loaf breads I’ve encountered include: satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) and black sesame bread, green tea bread, and rice bread (a personal favorite).

As a side note, Japanese breads tend to be a bit softer and moister than their Western counterparts (either from the US or Europe). In fact, Japanese people tend to avoid dry harder foods in general. Pretzels are rare as are all but the softest cheeses.

Buns and Pastries
Now this is where Japanese bread really gets fun. While you won’t see a lot of (if any) cookies, muffins, or scones in Japan, they’ve got quite a lot of buns and pastries of their own. While you’ll see a few familiar items, the majority are original Japanese creations. Nearly every bakery, even ones that are part of large chains, have a few specialty breads which you can’t find anywhere else and it can be pretty interesting to get a few random ones to try, but here’s a list of some of the more common Japanese breads.

Butter Roll: These are similar to dinner rolls, only softer and with quite a lot of butter baked in.
Croissants: Croissants in Japan are about the same as croissants anywhere else, though you’ll occasionally find ones stuffed with chocolate or covered in maple syrup.
Anpan (Read Bean Bread): Anman are buns which are easily recognizable by the black sesame seeds sprinkled on top. They’re filled with sweet red bean paste (a popular ingredient in Japanese sweets).
Meronpan (Melon Bread): Melon bread actually gets its name from the crosshatch pattern cut into the top, which looks like the rind of a Japanese musk melon, rather than its ingredients. Though, if you’re lucky, you may run across some actual melon flavored melon bread from time to time. Melon bread itself is a rather interesting bun created by taking a ball of bread dough and covering it with a layer of cookie dough before baking. When done right, it’s very soft, puffy, and sweet.
Kurimupan (Cream Bread): Cream bread is another stuffed bun (similar to anpan), often with an odd crimped shape, and filled with sweet cream. If you like it, you may also want to keep an eye out for similar breads stuffed with chocolate or apples.
Chiizupan (Cheese Bread): Unlike the sweet stuffed buns, cheese bread has less of a sheen to it and is often similar in shape to an English muffin. Inside is melted cheese and sometimes meat and vegetables as well.
Kareepan (Curry Bread): If sweet and buttery breads aren’t your thing, why not try something spicy? Curry bread is stuffed full of Japanese curry (which I’ll talk about more in a future post), covered with panko (flakey Japanese bread crumbs), and fried. It makes for a great snack or even a small meal and, while it’s good at room temperature, it’s even better right out of the oven.

And that’s only the beginning. If I tried to list all the strange (but good) breads I’ve seen in Japan, I’d be writing for hours. Japan may be a “rice” country but it’s certainly a great place for bread as well. If you’d like to learn more about Japanese bread, and baking in general, I highly recommend the anime (cartoon) and manga (graphic novel) series Yakitate Japan! which peaked my interest in bread and baking several years ago. And, if you’d like to try out some of the above breads without visiting Japan, feel free to drop me a line and I can pass on some of my recipes.


Personal Pronouns

By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, March 31, 2011

As a note, until I get back on a more regular update schedule, I’m going to forget about each day’s assigned subject and just write about whatever I feel like.

When it comes to Japanese, you can learn a lot about a person by the way they refer to themselves. In English, if you want to talk about yourself you use the word "I" or "me". In Japanese, however, there's a number of different personal pronouns to choose from and, while they all translate to "I" or "me", all of them say something different about the speaker's personality.

I refer to myself as watashi, though I'm thinking of switching to boku.

watashi: Watashi is the sort of general all around good personal pronoun. It's plain but it's safe, simple, and polite no matter the situation.

watakushi: This is a very polite personal pronoun so you don't hear a lot of people using it regularly. Instead, it's mainly used when talking to someone of a much higher station than the speaker (since the speaker wants to be as polite to that person as possible). If someone did use it as their main personal pronoun, however, it would indicate that they're extremely polite and humble, or maybe a really big suck-up.

Young women often refer to themselves as atashi.

atashi: Atashi is considered the "cute" personal pronoun. As such, it's used primarily by girls and young women. While watashi is also commonly used among girls, many use atashi instead to make themselves sound more cute and girly. Males and tougher girls, however, never use it.

boku: Just like atashi is the famine personal pronoun, boku is the masculine one. It's a little tough, a little boyish, and not really polite. While it's primarily used by men of all ages, tomboys and girls who want to sound a bit tougher and more assertive then usual will also use boku. Though doing so is considered rather unladylike.

ore: This one is like a super version of boku. It's manly, it's rough, it's tough, and it's even a little rude. While ore is traditionally the "tough guy" personal pronoun, a lot of boys and young men use it these days in an attempt to sound more masculine and grown up. Though a lot of them will switch to a more polite personal pronoun (such as watashi) when talking to a teacher, boss, or other important person. Girls never use ore unless they're really tough (or at least want to sound that way) and don't care at all about proper manners.

Young children, and some older girls, tend to refer to themselves in the third person.

Third Person: In Japan, very young children often refer to themselves in the third person (perhaps because they haven't figured out personal pronouns yet). But they're not the only ones who do so. It's become popular for some girls and young women to refer to themselves in third person as well (usually using their first name). It's considered a very cute and somewhat childish thing to do which fits right in with Japan's obsession with cute things of all kinds (a subject for a future post) and their general image of childhood being the "ideal" age (as opposed to the US, which generally thinks of the ideal as as early to mid 20's). There's also a bit of a connotation of the speaker not wanting to grow up, since they haven't moved on to more "mature" forms of speech.

As you can see, the personal pronoun someone chooses can say a lot about them. In Japanes books and TV shows, I find it rather interesting to note how each character refers to him or herself and how that reflects on their general attitude and personality, as that subtext is completely lost in English



By Josiah Lebowitz
Sunday, March 27, 2011

While many people in Japan do have their own houses (which I’ll talk about in a future post), for those living in or near major cities such as Tokyo, apartments are far more affordable than houses. Now you may be thinking that apartments are apartments no matter where you are, but Japanese apartments do have some rather unique elements.

Renting an Apartment

Some fairly typical Japanese apartment buildings.

In the US, especially with current market conditions, rental companies tend to want to make it as easy as possible for you to get into a new apartment. Many apartment complexes have rental offices that are open nearly every day, making it easy to drop in and take a look around. Find a place you like and it’s often a simple matter of signing some papers, paying the first month’s rent, and handing over a few hundred dollars as a mostly refundable security deposit. Your new apartment probably won’t be furnished but unless it was extremely cheap you’ll almost certainly get a fridge, oven, microwave, dishwasher, and quite possibly a washer and dryer as well. To add some extra incentive, many apartment complexes feature move in specials as well, offering reduced rent, free TVs, and the like to new tenants. Unless you’re really picky, on an extremely tight budget, or determined to live in a very crowded area, finding and getting a decent apartment is a fairly simple task.

But that’s the way it’s done in the US. Japanese people aren’t so lucky. First off, you can pretty much forget about rental offices. While there some rental agencies and private listings, if you want an apartment in Japan you’ll often need to find a full-fledged realtor to handle things for you. And when it comes to moving in, while the paperwork may not be that much different than it is here, the move in fees certainly are. To begin with, very few apartments in Japan allow you to rent on a monthly basis. Instead, you need to commit to a long term lease (usually for at least a year or two). While that’s not necessarily a problem, it means that you should be sure you’re happy with the place before making a deal. You should also make sure that you have quite a lot of money on hand, usually the equivalent of 4 – 6 months’ rent. Part of that goes to your realtor as a finder’s fee. Then there’s the security deposit which is not only much higher than the US equivalent but entirely non-refundable as well. Finally, there’s key money, which is essentially a questionably legal and in no way optional cash gift for the landlord. There are a handful of apartment companies (most centered around the Tokyo area) that often partially furnished apartments with minimal move-in costs and no long term lease, though the monthly rent tends to be significantly higher as a result.

With so many fees, switching apartments is something that is rarely done on a whim. And then, of course, you still need to spend to set up and furnish the apartment. Unfortunately, regular apartments in Japan often don’t include even the most basic appliances, so that’s another big expense. Even so called “fully furnished” apartments are often somewhat lacking by US standards.

Apartment Buildings

A smaller apartment building.

In the US, apartment complexes range from massive towers to groups of smaller buildings spread out over a nicely landscaped area. Many also include things like swimming pools and gyms to attract renters.

In Japan, I’ve never seen anything like the sprawling landscaped apartment complexes you can find in many parts of the US. Instead, it’s all about single buildings. While there are some older smaller apartment buildings around, quite a lot take the form of massive high-rises. Amenities such as pools and gyms are also pretty much unheard of.

Apartment Interiors

The main room in my old apartment.

While you can get large apartments in Japan if you have the money, in general you can expect any given Japanese apartment to be smaller than its US equivalent, though space does become a bit less of an issue as you move further away from the big cities. Japanese apartment sizes are classified as a number followed by letters. For example, a 3LDK apartment has three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, and kitchen while a 1K will only have a tiny kitchen and a multi-purpose room which serves as the bedroom, living room, and dining room all in one. On the bright side, rent on such tiny apartments isn’t all that expensive, at least if you can get past or avoid the move-in fees.

A tiny kitchen in my last apartment.

As for the rooms themselves… Kitchens, even in larger apartments, tend to be a bit on the small side and dishwashers and ovens are pretty rare. Instead, dishes are washed by hand and cooking is primarily done on stove top (except for rice, which put in a rice cooker). Bathrooms are a bit different than in the US, with the toilet in a completely separate room from the shower/bath and sink. And, with space at a premium, things like walk-in closets aren’t common. Instead, many apartments include some large cabinets built into the walls. Though, in smaller apartments, they’re often cut to save space. And, while washing machines are moderately common, dryers are not and even today many Japanese people hang their laundry outside to dry.

The shower in my last apartment.

In the end, Japanese apartments aren’t horrible but you have to accept the fact that space and things like dedicated living and dining rooms are considered luxuries rather than standard features. Both of my Japanese apartments were ok for the short term, though nothing had I been planning to stay in a single area for more than year I would have definitely gone looking for something nicer.



By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sorry that there wasn’t an update yesterday. Although I technically have more free time right now than I did when I was in Japan, I have a lot more to do as well so I may have to skip a day here or there depending on how busy I am. Now, on to today’s topic.

In the US and many other parts of the world we use handshakes as a greeting, to seal a promise or agreement, and the like. Though, as you probably know, far Eastern countries like Japan have a different way of doing things. Japanese people do know what a handshake is and many will shake hands with foreigners, but the correct way to do things is by bowing.

But a bow is much more than a handshake. Japanese people bow when greeting each other, saying goodbye, asking for a favor, offering thanks, and apologizing, along with a few other things. The habit of bowing is so deeply ingrained that some Japanese people will even do so while talking on the phone.

There are many different types of bows depending on the bower’s gender, his relationship to the person being bowed to, and the specific situation. The generic male bow is to bow from the waist with your feet together and arms and hands pressed firmly against your sides. The generic female bow is similar, except that you keep your arms in front, with your hands overlapping a little below your waist. How low you bow and for how long varies depending on the social status of the person you’re bowing too (the higher they are in relation to you, the lower and longer you bow), how much you respect the other person (lower and longer bows equals more respect), and the situation (if you’re expressing deep gratitude or remorse you should bow lower and longer). In some cases, little more than a nod of the head is needed while extreme situations may call for the “ultimate” bow where you go on your knees and press your hands and forehead to the floor. Mastering the subtleties of proper bowing is something that can really only be done by spending a lot of time around Japanese people though a normal (maybe 45 – 60 degree) fairly brief bow (a second or two) will work in most situations if you’re unsure. You should note that, while low long bows do show great respect, appreciation, or contrition, they can also seem mocking when used at the wrong time.

So why bowing? Many foreigners think that it’s to avoid physical contact but that’s not the case. Japanese people have no problems with physical contact, especially with people they know (though public displays of affection are generally avoided). Instead, the purpose of bowing is to show respect towards the other person no matter who they are, which fits perfectly with the Japanese ideal of maintaining calm and harmonious relationships.



By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, March 21, 2011


Looking Towards Odaiba

Odaiba is an artificial island in the Tokyo Bay. It’s become a popular entertainment area featuring several themed shopping malls, museums, and convention centers, among other attractions. Whether you like to shop, learn, play, or just relax in an onsen, it’s a great place to visit. Though it’s worth noting that the majority of attractions don’t open until 11 AM on weekends so don’t show up too early.

Getting There
Unless you have a car, the easiest way to get to Odaiba is via the Yurikamome, a private train line you can get on at Shimbashi or Shiodome stations. Though, if you want something a bit more scenic, you can hope on a sightseeing boat right outside of Asakusa Station.

What to See

The beach on Odaiba

There’s quite a lot to see in Odaiba. Even if you’re not a big shopper, the malls are worth a look for their elaborate themes and wide selection of restaurants. Depending on your interests, the museums can be quite fascinating as well and Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a great place to get an authentic onsen experience without leaving Tokyo.

Shopping Malls

The 50's Tokyo themed floor of Decks Mall.

The Decks Mall (which is actually two connected buildings) seems fairly ordinary at first, though it does include Sega’s massive Joypolis arcade / amusement park. But go up a few floors and you’ll find a floor themed after 1950’s Tokyo and another based on Hong Kong. There’s also Muscle Park, an indoor amusement park featuring a variety of physical and mental challenges you can attempt for fun and prizes.

Decks Mall's Hong Kong themed floor.

Right past Decks Mall is Seaside Mall. Though it doesn’t have any elaborate themes, it does have quite a lot of stores and a large movie theater.

Inside Venus Fort

Then there’s Venus Fort, which is part of the Palette Town complex on the other side of the street. While the lowest floor may not seem too amazing (unless you like to shop for dog clothes), the rest of the mall is tribute to the city of Venice and contains a number of high end shops and restaurants.

If you’re looking for something a bit more educational, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation has a wide variety of exhibits, many with hands-on elements, and features excellent English translations of nearly every signboard.

Though if science isn’t your thing, there’s a number of other museums such as the very hard to miss Museum of Maritime Sciences, the Shell Gasoline Museum, and the Fuji TV Museum.

Ooedo Onsen Monogatari

Ooedo Onsen is much more than just baths.

Ooedo Onsen is an onsen (hot springs) theme park based on Edo period Japan. If you don’t have time to visit a true mountain onsen resort, or even if you do, I highly recommend it. The water is authentic (they managed to find an actual onsen buried deep beneath the city) and spread between a number of different pools (indoors and outdoors) with varying temperatures and water compositions. There’s also a variety of special baths (hot sand, stone slabs, etc) and massage treatments available. But the baths are only half the fun. When you’re not bathing, you get to wear a yukata (Japanese robe) and are free to explore a recreation of Ero era Tokyo complete with shops, Japanese carnival games (for the kids), a number of different restaurants, and even some live entertainment. Not to mention the open-air foot bath.

My mom and an friend enjoying the foot bath.

It should be noted that, despite the fancy trappings, this is still a Japanese onsen so bathing is done completely naked. There are separate baths for men and women of course, but if you don’t feel comfortable stripping down along with a couple hundred other guys or girls you might want to consider renting a private bath or visiting a smaller onsen somewhere out in the country. And, like many Japanese baths, people with tattoos are prohibited.

Other Notable Attractions

A bird perched on Odaiba's small scale Statue of Liberty.

Behind the Decks and Seaside Malls you’ll find a beach which makes for a nice place to rest (though swimming is prohibited) and features a small replica of the Statue of Liberty. And Palette Town, in addition to the aforementioned Venus Fort, is also home to a large Toyota showroom, a classic car museum, and one of the world’s largest Ferris wheels.

Odaiba is a great place to spend a day. The fun malls, wide variety of museums and other attractions, and Ooedo Onsen ensure that just about anyone can enjoy themselves there.

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