Living Japanese style

Back in the land of Messy, Grumpy People.

Subway people

I know it’s a bit presumptuous to have reverse culture shock after being away for only 5 and a half weeks but I think you experience things differently when you are living somewhere as opposed to holidaying–i.e. you are staying in an apartment, cleaning it, taking out the garbage, grocery shopping and not just staying in a hotel. Though I would have really liked a pool….

Anyway, it’s been a bit weird being home. I’m sure most of it can be attributed to jet lag but there are some cultural differences that spring to mind. People here seem undisciplined and self-concerned compared to the inherent order of Japanese society. Also messy and grumpy. This isn’t really much of a surprise as culturally we are conditioned to value the individual before considering our impact on society as a whole; the Japanese are conditioned differently, pretty much the exact opposite. They are taught to maintain order, avoid chaos and keep the social order intact. Children are taught from an early age that “the nail that sticks up is hammered down” so the urge to conform is pretty basic. Wherever it comes from, it makes for a more orderly and streamlined society, though I have no idea what people are thinking, they are outwardly polite. People don’t push or shove, they don’t jump the queue, they rarely honk their horns, they wait patiently to board the escalator, they make way on the sidewalk…though I guess this behaviour is partially a survival tactic in a city as large as Tokyo, otherwise chaos and anarchy would reign.

People dress more formally. I saw women in Lululemon-like outfits three times. Two of them were jogging and the other looked like she was on the way home from yoga class–based on the fact that she was carrying a yoga mat. The majority of men wear suits and women wear skirts or dresses or dressy shorts. Many kids wear uniforms and if not, they have the cutest clothes ever. Even the dogs are groomed. I know some of the formality comes from living in a larger urban centre but there is a noticeable difference to North American sartorial habits. It’s almost as if you have a responsibility to not disturb the flow by dressing like a bum. Being odd or alternative is fine (Harajuku girls come to mind) as long as you’re tidy. I noticed a similar scenario in Paris and subsequently read a book by an American living in Paris, married to a Frenchman, who was told by her husband that running to the bakery to get croissants in her sweats with her hair in a ponytail was insulting to society in general. Perhaps they have a similar expectation in Japan? I’ll have to look into it…. Also keep in mind that most households wash their clothes in cold water and dry them on a rack–even our neighbour, whose house was worth approximately $4 million, had laundry hanging daily on the deck.

In shops and restaurants they greet every single person that walks through the door. Always. Irasshaimase (welcome). When you pay for things they bow. In any place except the convenience stores and the grocery store, they walk your purchase around the counter and hand it to you, bowing. In smaller shops they walk you to the door and bow as you leave. If it’s an expensive purchase they bow until you are out of sight. Yes, I actually saw this in the Issey Mikayke boutique in Omotesando (high-end shopping area). Four shop assistants bowed until the woman disappeared around the corner two blocks away. I’m not even kidding. In department stores, they bow before they leave the floor. Bus attendants at airports and hotels bow as the bus appears and again as it drives away. I know this sounds excessive, but it is quite charming and you don’t actually realize how peaceful it is to be away from angst and strife until you are back in it. This is the country that experienced no looting or violence in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident.

I went to the 7-11 on Friday night. I said ‘Konnichiwa‘ to the clerk, mostly because I was so tired and momentarily forgot that I was not in the neighbourhood 7-11 in Tokyo where I visited every day. He looked at me like I was a complete nutter. He didn’t bow when I left….

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.

Pinball for grown-ups.

Nostalgic for the bright lights and bad colour combos and the friendly neighbourhood pachinko parlour

Nostalgic for the bright lights and bad colour combos and the friendly neighbourhood pachinko parlour

I was out and about the other night, a few train stops away from Shibuya in a somewhat more residential area when I saw it…a pachinko parlour! In both of my previous apartments in Tokyo in the 90s, I was out of the CBD (central business district for those of you who have happily forgotten high school geography) where pachinko parlours abound. Bright and flashing lights, horrendous colours clashing all surrounded by banners and fake flowers.

What is this pachinko you may ask. Basically an arcade for grown-ups. The game is a lot like pinball but apparently the point is to collect up as many little balls as possible. You then exchange them for prizes on site or coupons which you can apparently exchange for cash offsite. Gambling for cash is not allowed under Japanese law. Apparently gambling for coupons that can be exchanged for cash two doors down is ok 😉

One step closer to the nunnery. Ueno Park, part 3.

Ueno TempleApparently there are many temples and shrines in Ueno Park. This one, Benten-do is the only one I had the actual strength to visit. Based on the fact that it had a big gong in the building, I figured it was a Shinto shrine. Shinto is a general respect for all the gods…sort a pantheistic approach and co-exists easily with Buddhism in Japan.

Upon entering, there is usually a fountain to purify yourself. You are meant to rinse your cupped hands, one at a time and then your mouth. You must transfer the water from your cupped hand to your mouth, not directly from the ladle as that would make the ladle impure for everyone else. Spit the water on the ground. I don’t see people spitting that often…must be one of those customs that is going by the wayside.

You can light incense and put it the sand in the incense-burner thing (Japanese name unknown). You light it (buy it first) and then wave it around to blow out the Ueno temple 2flame but not actually blow out the flame. The smoke is believed to be powerful and healing and people usually waft it towards themselves.

When entering the main building, the offering hall, take off your shoes if it’s indoors.  Actually, you have to take off your shoes at a lot of places that are indoors in Japan, particularly temples and shrines. Approach the Offertory box and throw your coin in. If there is a gong that’s when you ring it to get the attention of the gods. Then you bow twice (some say this is when you make your wish in your heart), clap your hands twice, bow again and pray for a bit.

If you are at a Buddhist temple, there is no gong and you shouldn’t clap as you are praying to the Buddha to help you attain salvation/nirvana not to a group of gods. I guess is that Buddha does not like to be summoned by clapping or loud gongs.

There are very cool little bookmark-like things as well as things that look like cell phone charms. These are called O-mamori and are good luck charms that can be quite specific types of good luck (new job, success on exams, health, wealth, marriage, baby etc). There are also fortunes you can buy called Omikuji that are good or bad luck. Traditionally you would leave the bad luck ones at the shrine thereby ridding yourself of the bad vibes whilst the good luck ones were taken home…but apparently you can increase or multiply your luck by leaving a good fortune at the shrine (which is what I did). The wooden plaques are called ema and you write your wish on the back and hang it on a special spot at the shrine. So there you have it…what to do at a Japanese shrine or temple should you happen to run across one 🙂

 

Department stores like you’ve never seen…

View from the Gallery level at Hikarie Department store in Shibuya

View from the Gallery level at Hikarie Department store in Shibuya

The department stores here are epic. There’s not really any other way to describe them. They’re huge…4-10 floors including a basement and possibly a sub-basement or two. They usually have food like groceries as well as take-out boutique-style food. I mean serious food here…all kinds of Japanese food, Korean barbecue, French patisseries, Italian delis, butchers, bakers, fromageries, chocolatiers…it’s quite something. Anyway, the food does not stop here. There are usually cafes and restaurants interspersed amongst the floors in case of starvation…think high-end food court. There are often art galleries and museums on the top floor as well as public spaces and sometimes even theatres and movie theatres. Up until today I’d only been shopping but today I did my first gallery tour at Hikarie Shibuya. I saw an exhibit on Japanese puppets (amazing), an installation on travel with various ‘objets’ and a modern art exhibit. Hikarie has two floors of restaurants and cafes. And it was packed.

I guess having such a huge population supports stores like this…think Holt Renfrew (10x bigger) with about 20 stores in the downtown area. For the most part, most department stores sell fairly high-end goods and many are boutique style, housing top designers within each store. They usually have a gift section and a kimono department in addition to the usual fashion, household goods, and beauty  departments. The customer service is amazing…if you go right at opening time (usually 10 or 11am), all the staff stand at the door and bow as you enter. They also bow whenever they leave the floor by turning to face outwards, bowing (even when there is no one there) and then going through the door. You rarely have to wait…if they see a lineup forming clerks will rush to a till to serve you…so that you, the honourable customer (o-kyaki sama), does not have to wait. It’s quite radically different from shopping at the Bay.

Here are some of the big ones; Marui; Parco Shibuya and Shibuya Hikarie Isetan, Keio and Odakyu in Shinjuku; Mitsukoshi, Matsuya, MatsuzakayaPrintemps and Takashimaya in Ginza; Seibu and their partner stores Loft (my favourite in terms of affordability and selection for household, beauty and paper) and Muji;  Shibuya 109 (horrendously loud on the weekends); Tokyu; Tokyu Hands (which is like Michaels on steroids); Tobu in Ikebukuro; and Daimaru. That’s not to mention the stores that specialize in health and beauty aids; the 100 yen stores like Daiso (which we have in Richmond); and all the designer boutiques that are at least 2-4 floors. There’s a lot of stuff to buy here. It’s hard to resist…already checking out the price of suitcases to haul my prizes home 😉

A little slice of Milan…three minutes away

Yummy pizza watched by the fish with eyeballs on the top left :-(

Yummy pizza watched by the fish with eyeballs on the top left 😦

Sooo…wasn’t feeling much like raw fish last night so we went looking for something different. Not Japanese. There’s a lot of Japanese food that is deep-fried and/or served on top of noodles with oddly, an egg on top. The eggs aren’t always totally cooked, in my experience anyway. This is a big yuk factor for me. I saw a little place just around the corner that looked good…homemade food, not deep-fried and no raw eggs. It was closed. Deep sadness.

Karis saw a place across the street and it was open so we headed over as there was a massive thunderstorm about to erupt. Which is how we ended up at Milano. Glass of prosecco for 300Y (about $3.25) plus full-on Italian style pizza baked in a brick oven for 500Y. We assumed the pizza would be about the size of a side plate for that price. Nope. They were the size of what we would consider a small pizza i.e. bigger than a side plate! The only miss of the night was the bruschetta. Nicely toasted bread, garlic, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and inexplicably, small white fish with eyeballs. We both tried them…they didn’t really taste like much but the eyeballs got to us. Pizza = HUGE win. Fish with eyeballs = Won’t be doing that again!

I even managed to get my leftover pizza ‘to go’ (o mochi kaeru)!

Sumo in the neighbourhood

For those of you who don’t know much about sumo… It’s an ancient art based on the Shinto religion and sponsored by the Japanese Imperial Court. The successful top-tier sumo wrestlers makuuchi have rock star status in Japan. They can be demoted if they lose but the grand champion, Yokozuna, cannot be demoted; he’s expected to retire if his performances get sloppy. They bow, throw salt (purification) and throw their hands up (Hey guys, I’m unarmed) before they start. Matches are pretty short and whoever pushes the other guy out of the ring first wins. Weight is important and the athletes in the training stables eat a high-calorie stew called Chanko Nabe. There are many training stables in the Ryogoku section of Tokyo as this has been the centre of sumo for over 200 years. There are also many restaurants serving Chanko Nabe if you’re interested in trying it out.

All that high-falutin’ sports stuff aside, there was a charming sumo tournament for kids in my ‘backyard’ sumo ring on Saturday. Cutest thing ever! Anyone could try. Even girls, though women are not allowed to compete professionally. And one intrepid toddler who fought everyone and was either indulged by a kindly older child or simply pushed over immediately. One girl beat about four boys. They all cried. She laughed and walked off with her prize watermelon and her somewhat bemused parents who weren’t sure if they should be proud or horrified. A good time was had by all–except the little boys who were pushed out of the ring by the little girl in the pink dress 😉

Heads up to the sumo world...the toddler and the little girl are the ones to watch. They've got HEART!

Heads up to the sumo world…the toddler and the little girl are the ones to watch. They’ve got HEART!

A typical day (the Mothership)

A Zen exercise environment...lovely stone stairs to run up and stretch on and lion statues to stretch my shoulders out!

A Zen exercise environment…lovely stone stairs to run up and stretch on and lion statues to stretch my shoulders out!

Being here in Tokyo, staying in a house that is not mine without a garden, husband or dog, has given me a fair amount of free time. I’m here to help Karis stay organized and on top of things…mostly by making sure she’s fed and her laundry is done. This isn’t always easy here. You need to food shop almost every day as there is no storage space and we are sharing with other people. Also, I’m pretty sure if I left it up to her she’d be eating a lot of Ichiban (which means ‘number one’) noodles and salad which isn’t a nutritional wonderland. The older girls (17+) are a bit more cognizant of what they’re eating whilst the 15-year olds on their own tend to eat out, make pasta or have noodles and toast…mostly because they can because they’re 15! Laundry, as you’ve heard in previous posts, is slightly more complex as it has to be air-dried and there can be a lot of sudden rainstorms. Running errands and getting money can take time. The only bank machines that take foreign ATM cards are the ones at the Post office…which are only open when the post office is open. It took me a day to buy a pillow…one that didn’t cost $75. Printing and mailing an electronic document also took the better part of a day though I know how to do it now. However, seeing as I am experienced in doing the household stuff and relatively able to figure out other things, it doesn’t take up that much of my time. So I’ve got some free time where I’m on my own.

I’ve been exercising every day. I tried running but it hurts my knee too much. Probably need new runners and the pavement can be a bit uneven. It’s also a bit unnerving as there is a constant stream of people and bikes coming at you which makes me really anxious. Anyway, I decided to run up and down the stairs at the sumo park around the corner. It’s been fabulous. Quiet. Somewhat shaded if I go early enough and doesn’t hurt my knee. I considered joining a gym or doing a class but it’s quite expensive here (over $30/class) and I’d have to walk or take the train. I’m so very lazy that any sort of extra work will end up being a great excuse for me not to go. So since the park is literally about a hundred yards away, it works for me. I also do other exercises from Karis’s trainer Caroline Walton which are helping my core and keeping my back from getting sore 😉

I also write. This blog is part of my writing commitment as are various other projects I’m working on while I’m here. I write and read every day. Being here has made me really think about how I spend my time…and how I waste my time. I watch a lot of TV at home. Much more than I actually thought. We have a TV here but it’s in a cupboard and I don’t even know if it works. Haven’t cared enough to try. Karis watches movies on Netflix and sometimes we’ll watch one together. I read the newspaper about twice a week. I’ll be instituting a few changes when I get home.

I also help Karis if she needs to take the subway anywhere as she’s not yet confident on her own. She’s pretty good and is picking up the finer points–the agency does give them maps but it’s still VERY confusing. Basically, I manage to amuse myself all day, every day. The department stores here are amazing…6-9 floors of cultural anthropology. The cosmetic stores are amazing…they have products we haven’t even heard of. Stay tuned…. I still hate cooking and find it hard to figure out what to cook. Ingredients you take for granted are sometimes hard to find though I have to say, it’s a lot different than it was in the  90s…I got anchovies and capers at the store today to make Salad Nicoise!

My working area in the kitchen; the weird toaster/broiler worked well to roast peppers; the finished product: Salad Nicioise!

My working area in the kitchen; the weird toaster/broiler worked well to roast peppers; the finished product: Salad Nicoise with prosciutto and melon and roasted peppers on Italian buns!

 

The Bus Drivers’ Home

So while I was walking along the street, hanging out with an old friend who lives in Tokyo with his wife and daughter, I learned some intriguing facts about Japan…lots of stuff I didn’t know. It will probably inspire many future posts…full credits to my Canadian friend who prefers to remain incognito. (Before I forget, he was the one that provided the info about the incinerator down the street and the fact that it only burns garbage at night.)

Anyway, we’re walking along the tracks in Shibuya and I see this massive parking lot filled with busses and, curiously, an apartment building right in the midst of all the busses. I made some comment about practical land usage above bus parking lots and he informs me that this is actually a dormitory for bus drivers. I remarked that it was nice of the company to provide housing for its employees if needed, particularly in Tokyo where apartments are so costly. He gave a wry smile and informed me that it was mandatory for employees to live in the communal housing for a number of years. This practice is not unusual and is meant to encourage corporate unity, corporate loyalty, foster relationships amongst co-workers as well as cutting the dependence on mum. I guess it’s like boarding school for adults…

#nocommute #livingwithmycoworkers #imissmymummy

#nocommute #livingwithmycoworkers #imissmymummy #ihaveanadultroommate #companyman