Quirks and Cool Stuff

Editing from an Anthropological Perspective.

Words of wisdom on writing paper

Words of wisdom on writing paper

An inspirational little quote on the cover of a small notebook/folder

An inspirational little quote on the cover of a small notebook/folder

My eco-bag for groceries...could not resist

My eco-bag for groceries…could not resist

All this in a notebook retailing for 60 yen ;-)

All this in a notebook retailing for 60 yen ūüėČ

Awww...very nice sentiment

Awww…very nice sentiment

A lovely sentiment for a plastic organizer file

A lovely sentiment for a plastic organizer file

One of the best things about Japan is the fact that so many items¬†have these charming English slogans on them. One of the most maddening things is that often there are charming English slogans but no useful information in English such as instructions for use or even a clue to what the product might be. Nevertheless, it makes for an amusing and informative diversion when you are spending time in a society where you are, for the most part, unable to read or understand much of anything. Depending on your personality or even your mood, you may find this incredibly peaceful or maddening. My anonymous friend loves it…he loves being left in peace and being able to focus on his thoughts and pursuits with minimal interruption from society at large. I deeply suspect he understands, and could likely speak, Japanese much better than he lets on. Because I used to be fairly fluent in Japanese, I found it frustrating at first but I eventually relaxed and found the absence of constant messaging to be a good thing. I was less tired and had energy to read and write more,¬†perhaps motivated by a lack of interaction in daily life? I think¬†my experience is a good illustration of the effect of information overload in today’s relentless global 24/7 society. Kind of unexpected to experience being ‘unplugged’ in Tokyo.

Back to the English words and phrases on items ranging from toilet paper (“fresh and heavenly softness with relaxation”) to laundry soap (“lemon for your fresh cloths”) to clothing (“smart baby and stylish”). I often wonder who gets to write these little sayings? Do they have complete editorial freedom? How does one get these jobs?¬†Is the author chosen by default because they are¬†the best/only English speaker in the company? Or is there some sort of computer program or online word bank they use? (“enter product here for a list of suitable English words and phrases”) Are they subtly mocking us? (Unlikely) Where does this fascination with English come from? They could definitely use an editor if I could ever figure out where to apply for the job ūüėČ ¬†I do think the usage and understanding of English has definitely improved as there are far fewer instances of truly butchered syntax and word choice than there were when I first came to Tokyo. Indeed,¬†my favourite experience of the misuse of English happened when I was in Tokyo in the 90s. I saw a expensively-dressed¬†young woman in her twenties wearing a fitted long-sleeved T-shirt with ‘Fucking Shit’ embroidered in an elegant¬†script. Back in the day, there weren’t a lot of non-conformists in this socio-economic bracket particularly shopping the streets of Ginza. I think things are coming full circle now as our society has developed a fascination with characters from other languages and the internet is full of instances of Westerners getting tattoos that they think mean ‘peace’ or ‘love’ that actually mean nothing of the sort.

Whatever the sociological or cultural reasons behind it, I for one, appreciate these little homilies found on countless items in Japan. It gives me something to read that is easy.¬†I can read hiragana (phonetic alphabet for Japanese words) but it is a time-consuming trial and often if I manage to actually decode the word, I rarely can remember the meaning as I’ve forgotten most of my vocabulary. Think back to kindergarten or Grade 1 when you weren’t completely sure which letter made which sound and you’ll have an idea of my reading level in Japanese. It’s hard. No wonder Karis was so tired when she came home from Kindergarten!

Got this for my mum...not that she's 'olb' or anything

Got this for my mum…not that she’s ‘olb’ or anything

I'm not sure I want to know where horse oil comes from...

I’m not sure I want to know where horse oil comes from…

Adjectives were problematic for me when I learned Japanese and French

Adjectives were problematic for me when I learned Japanese and French

Things to do, eggs to lay.

Buddha

I needed another six months in Tokyo at least. There’s so much to see and do, even if you’re not into museums. I AM¬†into museums (not just because they’re air-conditioned but I barely scratched the surface and I was a committed museum-goer whilst I was in Japan. There are ¬†many temples and shrines to see ranging from the small neighbourhood shrines to large imperial temples, plus so many other places of interest: a spa/thermal bath amusement park, Tokyo Disneyland, the Sapporo beer factory, Sake-making tour, kimono trying-on events, ikebana (flower arranging) classes, tea ceremony, Kabuki, the Robot Dinner Theatre, Panasonic Centre, the Tokyo Tower, Roppongi, Asakusa, the Imperial Palace, my old neighbourhoods, Sumida River Tour, not to mention all the local festivals, sumo tournaments, shopping and Obon (festival of the ancestors) which I’ve always wanted to see. My mum was going to come to Tokyo to visit us because she loves Japan (and probably missed the grandchild too). She visited Japan in¬†1990 when I was living there and we had a fabulous time touring all over the place…though I was exhausted and had to rest when she went home! This time around it wasn’t the best timing as the heat was a big factor–my mum is an intrepid traveller but brutally high temperatures with high humidity isn’t her cup of tea. I can’t imagine it being anyone’s cup of tea though, unless you’re on a beach somewhere.

I really wouldn’t recommend coming to Japan in the summer. Ever. It’s too hot to enjoy so much of what Tokyo and Japan has to offer. I’d come for the cherry blossoms in the spring or for the shichi-go-san festival (3-5-7) in the fall which is when girls (age 3 and 7) and boys (age 5) go to the shrines in full kimono for a ceremony…cutest thing ever! The weather is decent in both the spring and the fall and at least you can go outside without perishing from heat exhaustion!

In the photo, Karis is leaning against the ad for an exhibit I wanted to see but didn’t get time. The Tokyo National Museum is in Ueno Park…I walked past it on my way to the National Museum of Western Art but even I have my limits. Can’t do two large museums in one day. Smaller ones (like the Bridgestone, L’Orangerie in Paris) yes, but most of the museums in Ueno Park are huge and deserve at least a day to themselves. Not that you’d be¬†staying¬†at the museum for¬†the whole day, but it certainly takes a dedicated art lover¬†with a pliable mind to take in two large museum’s worth of art in one day ūüėČ

Sweat Switch Hot Scrub Massage.

fat burning gel

Ah the curiosities of Japanese drugstores….To be completely honest, there were some purchases that we weren’t entirely sure of…in that we didn’t really know what they did but they were intriguing and/or affordable enough to take a chance. The one thing I did stay away from is the ubiquitous skin bleach that is found in many products as the Japanese value pale and blemish free skin which also explains the fact that they have the best sunscreen in the world. Luckily the labelling on these products¬†was often in English/Roman lettering as well as Japanese characters and you learn pretty quickly what to avoid–anything that “whitens, brightens, illuminates, blanches, or bleaches” your skin. Tightening, firming, youthful, pretty, baby (yes, they have a whole line based on “baby” skin which I originally thought was cosmetics for babies and toddlers), lovely¬†and¬†collagen are all words that usually indicate a product with collagen or vitamin C/E instead of bleach. I did learn the Japanese characters for “face bleach” just to make sure ūüėČ

One of our favourite products in addition to the camellia oil, the Shu Uemera facial cleansing oil and the Hello Kitty Collagen Wash is the fat-burning gel. Karis found it at the Don Quixote store and we thought we’d give it a go. The first brand we bought says “Esteny THE MASSAGE Body” on the label along with a picture showing a¬†tomato and some ginseng or ginger. The instructions show¬†that¬†you are supposed to rub it into your stomach. That’s it. No more English but it was only about $6. Karis tried it, and whilst she did smell a lot like a tomato, she claims that it got really hot and she swears her stomach is flatter. She’s a believer. Though this is a child that believed the house hippo was real for quite some time….

The second tube we bought had a lot more English on it as well as a picture of a hot pepper and ginger noting they are HOT. It also has the following in English:¬†DEEPTOCX sweat switch hot scrub massage. Use DEEPTOCX to complete cleansing of your body. Promotion of blood¬†circulation by massage activates your body. DEEPTOCX promotes sweating to remove excessive moisture and waste containing unwanted substances.¬†How could I possibly resist? Apparently it also contains the Hawaiian coffee fruit and gets rid of arm fat (AKA batwings). I haven’t used this product¬†yet, but I did use Karis’s Esteny gel on my arms. I didn’t feel hot sensations, though to be fair the product¬†has a lot more fat to work through on my arms than the negligible¬†amount of fat¬†on Karis’s stomach. My arms¬†are¬†slightly smaller but I’ve also been working out so I can’t really tell what caused the reduction. If the fat-burning gel actually works I will be importing a container of it and bathing in it daily. Stay tuned.

Under Wraps.

packaging

The art of wrapping…and if it’s an art, it’s probably because the Japanese made it one. Usually when you buy things that come in a package like cookies,¬†crackers and candy, they will come individually wrapped (cookies) or grouped together in small snack packages. It would be very helpful if you were assembling lunches or snacks for kids. It works well¬†to keep things fresh and also (bug warning ewwww) to keep the cockroaches away. Yes, Tokyo is very hot and humid in the summer so they do suffer with cockroach infestations. Luckily we were on the second floor so we didn’t have many…at least we didn’t when I was there. Fingers crossed for the girls still braving the summer heat.

I have to say, things have become more eco-friendly, in terms of superfluous packaging, since I lived in Tokyo in¬†1991. I recall buying my daily¬†treat at the bakery outside the station. One item¬†only;¬†a cookie, a cinnamon bun. My one item¬†would be wrapped in waxed/tissue-like paper and secured with a sticker, then put in a small box (even if it was just a cookie), THEN put in a carrier bag. Most department stores followed a similar three-layer protocol. First your purchases would be wrapped in tissue–like with like so the packages would be symmetrical and tidy–and neatly fixed with tape or a sticker, then put in a paper or plastic bag THEN this bag would be placed inside a fancy carrier bag with a logo and handles. As I’ve mentioned before, those who brought their own bags or knapsacks to the grocery store were viewed as potential threats to the social order and often received their food nicely wrapped in plastic and paper to protect the inside of their fabric bags or knapsacks.

A lot has changed now. I didn’t buy too many bakery items but they seem to have it down to 2 layers of packaging: a cellophane bag closed with tape or a sticker, placed inside a paper or plastic bag–no more carrier bags unless you buy something big. The department stores, for the most part, still wrap everything in tissue or place items in a paper bag and then put them in a carrier bag. So they’ve got it down to two layers too. Some of the middle-tier department stores have even (gasp) gone to a one bag only system. Nicely taped closed with logo tape but still, only one bag. Some bags, Shibuya Loft comes to mind, even use plastic bags and not fancy carrier bags with logos and handles. They still bow when they present you with your purchases though.

My grocery store has a small rack at each cashier that holds laminated cards with a picture of a bag in a red circle with a line through it that you place in your basket if you have your own bag. You also get extra points and a discount if you bring your own bags. So times HAVE changed. However, they still bring out the plastic umbrella sleeves every time it rains, even in the most lowly of department and grocery stores. The idea of wrapping packages and gifts and concealing things that are less than aesthetically pleasing will likely be a hard habit to break for the Japanese.

It’s a barbieworld!

Barbie

It’s technically our last day…though the blog will carry on for a while as I’ve got a few more topics that I haven’t covered yet. In term so of modelling, it’s an odd market this year for a variety of reasons but mainly because there are more girls in town than usual. Karis has more work in Vancouver so we’re heading back to the west coast tomorrow…but hopefully back to Tokyo in the next year or so.

Anyway, back to Barbie. It was sort of apropos that we ended up at the Barbie 55th Anniversary Retrospective as I picked up a flyer advertising it from Seibu (department store in Shibuya) on my very first day in Tokyo…and I remember thinking that it would be a very cool thing to see. As I’ve mentioned before, most department stores here have a gallery and exhibition space and they tend to have some unique exhibits…sort of like 55 years of Barbie ūüėČ As usual, very well done and beautifully presented. A very complete collection of Barbies in the most amazing outfits, including some collector’s items and a unique Barbie designed by a contest winner. Lots of high fashion Barbie including Burberry, Juicy Couture, Bob Mackie, Christian Lacroix, Dior, Givenchy just to name a few…that I could actually read…the only drawback is that department store exhibits are rarely translated so it’s a bit slow trying to figure it all out but at least I can read the dates and take photos of Karis with the life size Barbie in the display.

Renoir, Monet and the Tire King.

Hottest day ever...almost too hot to pose and definitely too hot to cross the street and get a closer picture of that large metal giraffe.

Hottest day ever…almost too hot to pose and definitely too hot to cross the street and get a closer picture of that large metal giraffe.

In Japan oftentimes large corporations have significant art collections–one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is owned by a Japanese insurance company and the Bridgestone Museum, which houses a lovely collection of French and European 19th and 20th century art, is owned by the tire company. The museum was founded in 1952 by Ishibashi Shojiro to house his private collection which he later donated to the Ishibashi Foundation which has expanded the collection regularly.

I love this museum because it’s small, it has a carefully curated collection with paintings from most major impressionist artists, a small sculpture gallery as well as a very respectable collection of realism, post-Impressionism, modernism and even some abstract art. The best thing was that the museum also houses a collection of Japanese art-works of the time that were painted in the western style. Fascinating. I’d never seen or heard of any of these artists so I learned a lot and saw some paintings I’d never seen or heard of before today.

It was ridiculously hot today though, hard to even walk a couple of blocks from the metro stop. Happy we did walk as there was a very cool stationery store staffed by the tiniest and cutest elderly Japanese lady ever—she wrapped Karis’s stuff separately so she could have her very own package ;-). We also saw a random museum and cafe celebrating the history of Pilot Pens. Did you know they have the first and only retractable fountain pen? Didn’t buy one, mostly because they weren’t for sale. Talk about a missed marketing opportunity….

 

 

 

Toire-wa doko ni ari masu-ka?

Amazing toilets

Literal translation is “Where does a toilet exist?” Luckily, in Tokyo, almost everywhere. If you are in need of the facilities, there are decent toilets to be found in many places such as department stores, coffee shops and train stations. The ones in department stores are usually quite lovely, many equipped with a handy baby/toddler chair (also good for umbrellas), baby change table and a fold down platform that provides you with a clean area upon which¬†to stand should you need to change your clothes.

Japanese toilets are probably the best in the world sadly they don’t export the most majestic models but you can find lovely TOTO models in Canada. Even the base models, found in public places like train and bus stations, have automatic flush or an electronic flush activated by movement. Many also have heated seats, a built-in bidet (with controls for temperature, pressure and angle of water), a dryer and a recording to mask any embarrassing sounds you might make. There is also a toilet seat cleaner that automatically dispenses a spray of antiseptic for you to wipe the toilet seat; however, many higher-end toilets clean themselves after each use.

Most restrooms also offer at least one squat style toilet for those traditionalists who say it’s more hygienic as your body isn’t touching anything. Personally, I find it odd to see a squat toilet in a fancy washroom surrounded by marble and mahogany but hey, it’s great to have choices in life. If you’re feeling a little tired and in need of a rest, many restrooms¬†in stores and museums offer sitting areas with comfy couches and make-up areas. Surprisingly there are no refreshments served.

The only thing missing in most train station restrooms is a hand dryer…which is usually a great opportunity to put all those packages of free Kleenex to use.

Balletworld.

Ballet

Karis had a slow day on Thursday so we evaluated our options…particularly our indoor options. We’ve been wanting to check out a special exhibit by Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away)¬†for their new film¬†When Marnie Was There¬†but sadly, it’s an outdoor museum and it was fricking¬†hot so Karis¬†decided to try out a ballet class instead. Air conditioned. Indoors. I had emailed around earlier to see what was available on a drop-in basis and in English and found a great studio just a few subway stops away (AND past Gotanda where I used to live 23 scant years ago…it actually looked a little bit familiar unlike my trip to Ginza ūüėČ

Architanz¬†is a studio that offers ballet, contemporary and Pilates mainly to dancers age 13+ with guest teachers from all over the world. The students run the gamut from very talented teenagers to company members to those who try hard but suck, ranging in age from 13-50ish. Karis was the only foreigner in the class and the tallest. Minh Pham¬†taught the class–intermediate level for dancers with 5 years + experience. Karis hasn’t done ballet for about six months due to a back injury so I figured it would be plenty hard enough. Class moved pretty quickly and she did well, especially considering she hasn’t taken class for so long.

I hung out in the smoke-filled lounge. Yup, it seems that all the dancers smoke and drink coffee. Also spent a considerable amount of time looking at the Yumiko leos at the boutique in the lobby. Any dancer or parent of a dancer is fully aware of the cach√© of these custom made leotards. A good portion of the dancers in the class were sporting the Yumiko brand much like dancers at the National Ballet School wear Ainsliewear (Ainslie Cyopik is a graduate of NBS). Speaking of NBS…the most amazing coincidence of all. Karis comes out of class and heads over to a Japanese girl waiting for the next class. The hug like old friends and chat for a moment. I’m completely puzzled as Karis, as far as I know, does not know any Japanese girls. The models at her agency that she interacts with are all international (no Japanese girls) so I had no idea how she knew this girl. It turns out that she attended summer school with her at NBS in Toronto last year. It’s not like they’ve kept in touch as she doesn’t speak English and Karis had no idea she danced there. So of all the days she chose to go to class, at that particular studio¬†to that particular class and she sees someone she knows in a city with the same population as Canada…it truly is a small world.

Drugstore adventures, round 4.

Drugstore loot...cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

Drugstore loot…cream and lotion, sunscreen, laundry freshener, oil blotting paper, and tomato fat-burning gel

We stumbled upon Don Quixote, or ‘donki’ as it’s called here. It’s not technically a drugstore, it’s a massive discount store that sells everything from cosmetics to electronics to garden supplies to sex toys and maid costumes. Of course we went for the cosmetics and beauty products. Karis and I share a deep fascination for Japanese cosmetic stores and the goodies within. This is quite remarkable as Karis has no stamina as a shopper. My mum and I have failed dreadfully in training her up. I remember one incident in particular in Seattle on a ladies shopping trip where we mistakenly thought it would be fun to bring the girls. Not. They have no stamina. Literally. Ninety minutes in Nordstrom’s¬†Rack and they were rolling around on the floor in-between the racks begging to go home. They were¬†twelve¬†and we were buying stuff for them. This is still the case even though she is a teenager working in the fashion industry…except for the cosmetic and beauty product stores. (And she doesn’t roll around on the floor now.)

These stores are filled with amazing things. It’s mysterious, like a treasure hunt, mostly because we rarely know what products do unless there is a helpful tag line in English which is rare (and often misleading). I’ve heard stories of foot peels gone awry leaving the bottom of your feet raw; moisturizer that is actually face bleach and mascara that is so waterproof that it needs the cosmetic equivalent of paint thinner to remove it. However, that does not scare us as the potential rewards are fabulous. They have amazing face masks, pre-soaked with solution (aloe, mushrooms, lavender, bee pollen, snake venom); rose-flavoured toothpaste; body gel that has some tomato product in it that burns fat; and probably the best sunscreen on the market by Anessa which is Shiseido’s drugstore brand. They’re also not afraid of using facial and hair oils–cosmetic giant Shu Umera makes a legendary facial cleansing oil that has been on the market in Japan since 1967.

The Japanese spend more on cosmetics than any country in the world which has resulted in a lot of money spent on research and development, particularly for sun protection. They have a number of organic and natural cosmetic lines as well and the drugstore brands are far superior to ours…just wish we could read the labels!

Job opportunity for crazy cat ladies in Tokyo.

cats four cats threeWe went to a cat cafe…probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done and wasn’t at all what I expected, though I should have thought a little harder about this one in that most cats don’t really like people that much (Cats look down on you, dogs look up to you and pigs treat you as equals). Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience, albeit a strange one, and worth every penny of the twenty-odd dollars it cost.

First we had to find the cat cafe¬†in a random office building in Shibuya. We headed up the stairs and to stand in the sweltering heat with an American woman and her two kids who warns us that she’s been told to wait outside until they’re ready and that the woman in charge is VERY serious. Karis and I patiently wait and thank our lucky stars that we arrived when we did as two groups come up behind us and we realize we could have been waiting a whole lot longer in the shaded but sauna-like stairwell. When it’s finally our turn, we head inside and remove our shoes…I mean this place has the feeling you get in a serious-ass temple. It’s a CAT CAFE. We are wordlessly handed two laminated sheets of instructions in English–which I would have photographed if I could have gotten away with it but I was actually scared of the cat woman and there was a HUGE sign saying no photos in the entryway. Anyway, you are pretty much forbidden to do much of anything with the cats; if you get scratched they have first aid but they can still kick you out; ¬†if you cause any sort of disturbance they have the right to call the police as well as remove you from the premises. They also have the right to refuse you entry if you smell like another cat or of anything that may upset or agitate the cats. I’m not kidding. They take the cat thing VERY seriously, the American woman was indeed correct. You pay by the half-hour and your fee includes an obligatory drink, a small cookie and a chocolate.

When the cat lady was satisfied that we were sufficiently well-versed in the cat cafe rules we were ushered into the inner sanctum. We had to put on special cat cafe slippers and wash our hands with soap and water and then use special hand sanitizer. She watched us to make sure we didn’t cheat. We put our belongings in a special bag (no personal items allowed except a camera but no flash). We were given a¬†time-stamped receipt noting precisely when our time was up tucked inside a lanyard…that we did not actually wear–I was waiting to see if we’d be forced to put it on (nope).¬†We sat at our couch as directed and the assistant cat lady (who I believe was her daughter) served us our very sweet iced chai with lids. We took the lids off and inadvertently used one of them as a coaster and were reprimanded severely while the head cat lady firmly replaced the lid on top of the cup. I guess it keeps the cats out of the drinks which does make sense, though it was one of the only things that did in the entire experience.

So the cats basically hate people. They are asleep like they’re drugged but of course, I realized while we were there that cats do actually sleep quite a lot and really don’t like being fussed over. There were also several cats with white and pink collars on who were not to be touched as they had ‘sore necks’. So between the cats with the collars and the cats that hated people and the cats that were asleep in ‘tall things’ that were not allowed to be disturbed there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do. It was actually hilarious though…it’s the perfect job for a crazy cat lady. I cannot believe that people pay to do this. The place has a lovely view of the leafy streets of Shibuya but the oppressive presence of the crazy cat mother and daughter duo and the cat-themed clutter makes for a very long 30 minutes. We were hustled out 3 minutes early but Karis was ready to go. They had little cat-shaped comment stickies you could fill out and stick on the cat appreciation wall in the lobby…my daughter the shit-disturber wrote ‘The cats hate everyone’ on hers. Pretty much true…but one of the funniest and weirdest things I’ve ever done. Also, hands down, the grumpiest Japanese people I’ve ever met. Ever.

cats two cats one

Now for the funny part. In the same building is a pet store with puppies and kittens. So we go in and check them out because they’re cute and they’re actually awake. Karis asks the guy if she can hold one and, sure enough, wash your hands and it’s a done deal. So we played with puppies and kittens who were awake and liked us and it was free. Now she wants me to import the puppy back to Canada…

Don't touch the freaking cats

Don’t touch the freaking cats

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It's free...

Touch the puppies. Pick them up. It’s free…