Thursday, January 27, 2011

Winter Fun

Some may think of winter as a gloomy time of year when it’s time to hunker down and stay indoors. Others embrace winter as a time to enjoy winter sports and activities. Being diverse in landscapes, Japan has plenty of offerings at this time of year.

Naturally, during the winter there’s skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating to be done. Areas like Hokkaido and Nagano are home to some world class ski-fields. Hokkaido in particular receives good amounts of snow as early as October and can keep its fields open well into the spring months. If you’re looking for somewhere closer to Tokyo, Nagano is only a few hours away by bus or train and was of course the site of the 1998 winter Olympics making it rich in winter sports facilities.

After a day on the ski slopes it’s popular to unwind in one of Japan’s many onsens (hot-springs). Popular winter resort areas are famous for their many natural onsens. The resort town of Nozawa in Nagano is famous for its dozens of onsens throughout the village, many of which are free of charge. Relaxing in hot natural spring water is a great way to sooth the aches, pains and injuries of skiing or snowboarding. You may even be lucky enough to enjoy outdoor springs that are a unique experience if there is snow falling.

If you are looking for things to do in the city, cities like Tokyo are remarkably clear during the winter months. The trees may be stripped bare but the air is fresh and crisp and the sun shines mostly every day. Winter is also the best time of year to view Mt.Fuji. The clear winter air makes it easy to spot the great mountain from far and wide. Its snow-capped peak makes for an idyllic scene.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Animated Characters ARE Giving

You’re never too far from a cartoon character in Japan. Animated characters promote everything from baby food to the police. This year there’s a new trend for animated characters; promoting charity.

During the new year’s break, a man from Nagasaki anonymously donated several school bags to a children’s charity. He did this under the moniker, “Naoto Date” (Tiger Mask), a famous character from the animated series Kamen Rider. Since his generous act, there have been hundreds of cases of anonymous donations made to charities and organizations across Japan, all of whom adopt the names of popular animation characters.

This current fad has highlighted the fact that many Japanese want to donate to charities but lack the channels to do so. Most donations have been to organizations that help children. The ability to do this anonymously has also been a boon.

Anonymity and blending in with the crowd are something of a virtue in Japan. Doing good deeds in secret has accelerated this charitable trend. Using popular animation characters has made it an even more attractive prospect for many Japanese.

The current Tiger Mask fad actually occurred in the early 1970’s and was somewhat short-lived. With any hope, this trend will not only continue, but expand and make donations to charity a commonplace event.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Happy New Year!

New Year’s, or oshogatsu, is the largest and most important holiday in Japan. There are a multitude of customs and traditions both old and new that Japanese people follow at this time. Some customs have been around for centuries while others are more recent additions to the holiday.

One of the most important customs of the holiday comes days and even weeks before January 1st. People send friends, family and colleagues nengajo (greeting cards). The influx of cards in the postal system causes Japan Post to hire hundreds of temporary postal workers each year. The giving and receiving of cards for new years is a relatively recent custom that was adopted in the 1800’s and is based on the western tradition of sending Christmas cards.

Of course there are many other traditions that you can discover in Japan at this time of year, but for foreign visitors perhaps the most striking is the new year’s celebration itself.

The celebrations and events at stroke of midnight on December 31st in Japan are somewhat different to those that westerners are used to. Instead of huge parties, fireworks and carnivals, towns and cities in Japan are flooded with people travelling to their local shrine. At the stroke of midnight shrines sound their bells 108 times to signal the beginning of the new year. People then give their prayers at the shrine, usually with their entire family. The crowds in larger centers like Tokyo can be massive. To cope with this the city’s train system runs around the clock at this time.

According to the Chinese calendar, this year is the year of the rabbit. Souvenirs and collectibles, featuring the animal of the year are a popular item at the start of the new year and are available at many shrines and shops across the country. The Chinese new year officially begins on February 3rd this year. China-towns in Japanese cities like those in Yokohama will also hold special parades and festivals to see-in the year of the rabbit.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eco Aware

Being one of the world’s largest industrial economies means that you’re always going to have to deal with one of the world’s largest amounts of industrial waste and pollution. There have been many initiatives in Japan to deal with this problem.

Perhaps one of the most pressing environmental issues of the late 20th century was the problem of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. It was in Japan that the famous Kyoto Protocol was discussed and put into action. Since its adoption in 1997 there have been various undertakings in Japan towards meeting the protocol’s requirements.

Last year the Japanese government initiated the “Eco Points Program.” This was a program that gave consumers incentives to buy environmentally friendly electrical appliances. Incentives came in the form of “eco points” that could be exchanged for either discounts or cash-back chances. Traditionally environmentally unfriendly appliances, such as air conditioners and refrigerators, often earned the highest amount of “eco points.” The program was due to end this year but the government has decided to extend the program into the New Year. Not only has the program helped reduce Japan’s overall carbon emissions, but it has also proved to be a great stimulus for the electrical appliance industry.

Toyota is also the producer of the Prius hybrid car. The Prius is a common site on Japanese roads. It is now also the world’s most popular hybrid engine car. Other Japanese auto makers are stepping up the competition with numerous hybrid models of their own.

Finally, still on the subject of automobiles, the world’s first hydrogen fuel-celled bus service is set to start in Tokyo this week. Travellers to and from Tokyo’s Haneda airport will be able to use the environmentally friendly bus service from Shinjuku or the Tokyo City Air Terminal.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Shaky Islands

One thing you have to be aware of upon visiting Japan is earthquakes. Nowhere in Japan is safe from seismic activity. The entire country itself is a series of land formations produced by tectonic uplift and volcanic activity. Japan is often referred to as the most seismically active region in the world.

Earthquakes happen everyday in Japan. This shouldn’t be of major concern as the vast majority of quakes are so small that they go unnoticed. Nevertheless, if you are visiting, or are here on a longer stay, you do need to be aware that earthquakes are a possibility. If you come from an area that doesn’t experience earthquakes, they can be quite a scare. Fortunately, being a modern and developed country means that Japan is well-prepared for the big one.

Major earthquakes like the Hanshin and Niigata quakes have made Japanese authorities more prepared than ever. If you do find yourself in an earthquake in Japan, the best thing to do is wait it out in a safe place such as under a sturdy table or doorway. In most cases quakes aren’t strong enough to be life threatening. Stay calm and stay in a safe place. Do not run outside as you risk being struck by overhead power-lines, falling glass and other debris. If the quake has been strong enough to cause damage, follow the directions of any building wardens or authorities. You will be directed to an assembly point. All buildings and public spaces have designated “safe areas” for assembly in a disaster. Hotels and lodges always display where this is in each room.

As mentioned previously, most earthquakes won’t cause major damage, but they are fairly common in Japan and it is important to remember this while visiting here. Travel insurance that includes earthquake related injuries is always a prudent move.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Holiday Souvenirs

What’s the most important part of taking a trip? Is it the sights and attractions? Local festivals and events? Unique cuisine? Indeed, all are important but it may be of interest to you that in Japan, acquiring omiyage (souvenirs) is high on the list. In many cases, some may even say that it’s the most important thing to remember while away.

This is because the culture of gift giving is extremely important in Japanese culture. Certain social and business protocols dictate that gifts are to be exchanged. Partnerships with new clients require some form of gift exchange. Likewise does catching up with friends, family and workmates after even a short trip away.

It’s not necessarily the gift that is important but the gesture itself. Most souvenirs found in Japanese cities and towns tend to be small, relatively inexpensive snacks or nick-knacks. Popular types include manju (a soft dough cake with perhaps a sweet bean paste filling) and varieties of mochi (glutinous rice flour cakes).

Because of its place in the culture, the souvenir trade in Japan is worth millions. Each town in Japan knows the importance of having a local specialty to peddle to visitors. Even if there isn’t a distinguishing product, a town will make one. For instance, did you know that the recommended souvenir snack of Tokyo is the Tokyo Banana (a banana shaped and flavored cream cake/cookie)?

You can’t leave town without buying the local specialties and recommended foods. Most Japanese people travelling within Japan will stock up on goodies for their friends, family, colleagues and even boss. This tradition extends to international travel too. Some Japanese tourists to foreign countries even state a particular product or food as their reason for going. Such travelers are usually expected to bring samples of the product back as a souvenir. A few years ago when there was only one Krispy Kremes store in all of Japan, Japanese visitors to the USA were flying back with cases of donuts. Fortunately, there are a lot more Krispy Kreme stores in Japan these days.

So if you’re coming to Japan for the first time, remember to bring an assortment of goods for souvenirs. If you live in Japan and are going to travel domestically, do not forget your all important omiyage!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Train Culture

It may not be at the fore of the Lonely Planet guide to Japan but each year many train buffs come to Japan to experience the country’s state of the art trains and rail network.

Japan is home to some of the largest and busiest rail networks in the world. High-tech trains such as the shinkansen (bullet train) and the new high-speed Keisei Narita Airport Skyliner have always been at the forefront of Japan’s railway industry. There are at least sixteen major train operating companies in Japan. Tokyo itself contains dozens of different train lines operated by at least nine different companies. The Tokyo rail network can at times seem overwhelming but it is however a tourist attraction in its own right.

Train spotters from within and outside Japan can frequently be seen on Tokyo’s train platforms. These are very serious individuals indeed. They pack an impressive array of camera equipment and will travel the lengths of the country to get shots of a rare or special edition train. During peak hours and seasons, rail companies make special provisions and guidelines for train spotters as they can be so numerous and enthusiastic that they may obstruct proceedings. A huge range of collectible goods are also lapped up by train enthusiasts.

You don't have to be a train spotter to appreciate Japan’s trains. A mixture of high technology and quirky themes has kept the industry thriving.

This December train spotters and tourists alike have a new train to marvel over. It’s not a new high-speed maglev train, nor is it particularly modern. The Seibu Electric Railway company have decided to run a “maid train service.” Realizing the popularity of maid culture in places like Akihabara, Seibu are cashing in by staffing fully costumed maids on their express service between Chichibu in Saitama and Ikebukuro in Tokyo. The maids will be selected from some of Akihabara’s most popular maid cafes. A single trip will be 3600 yen for adults, and 3000 yen for children. If you’re interested in trains and anime culture, why not take a ride and experience both!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Holidays and Festivities

It’s around this time of year that those of us from “western” countries tend to start thinking of holidays and how we are going to spend them. In a previous entry we looked at Halloween and how it`s an example of a western festival slowly encroaching into Japanese culture. These days there are many more holidays and festivals from overseas being observed in Japan.

The biggest and most high-brow example has to be Christmas. The non-secular nature of Christmas these days is common everywhere. In Japan Christmas has been spun into a sort of extra Valentine’s Day in which spending time with your significant other on Christmas Eve seems to be the most important act. For those looking for the more traditional Christmas experience, more and more restaurants and hotels are catering to the expat community by offering traditional western-style Christmas dinners with all the trimmings. While only a very small percentage of Japan’s population is Christian, major cities usually contain several churches where midnight mass and Christmas day services are open to the general public.

A similar holiday for any Americans present in Japan is Thanksgiving. Although there is no similar equivalent in Japanese culture, Americans living and working in Japan can still enjoy a traditional thanksgiving dinner. Similar to Christmas, many restaurants that cater towards foreign clientele in cities like Tokyo and Osaka offer special Thanksgiving menus. Bookings usually need to be made very early as seating is often very limited.

Over recent decades there have been an increasingly diverse range of foreigners moving into Japan. These migrants and visitors often bring their festivals and traditions with them. For instance, large numbers of Indonesian factory workers have boosted the number of Muslims in Japan. This has made observance of Ramadan and its rules necessary in some workplaces. Brazilian migrant workers who arrived for work in the car assembly industry of cities like Nagoya have introduced Brazilian carnivals and festivals to that city as well as to other parts of Japan. The size-able Chinese community in places like Yokohama’s China-town has made Chinese New Year a huge event in the area.

While mostly contained to major cities, it is increasingly becoming easier to celebrate or observe a wide variety of festivals and holidays in Japan.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Seasonal Displays

The holiday season is almost here. Despite not celebrating Christmas (at least not as many in the west know it), from the amount of Christmas displays all around Japan, you’d swear it was the most important holiday of the year.

Shop displaying is an art and it’s taken to great heights in Japan. Displaying really goes up a notch in early September when believe it or not, it’s Halloween. Halloween is another festival that has a very short history in Japan and not a lot dedicated followers outside of the children’s and young-adults age bracket. Nevertheless, Halloween seems to be growing in popularity each year. Big department stores such as Loft and Tokyu Hands pull out all the stops with massive amounts of decorations and Halloween themed costumes and paraphernalia on sale. I’d even go as far as saying that the attention and detail paid to Halloween in Japan exceeds that of many English-speaking countries.

Almost immediately after Halloween ends on November 1st Christmas season begins. Department stores have already rolled out their Christmas decorations and trees and it’s only the beginning of November. KFC, a major player in the Japanese Christmas, have already announced their Christmas fried chicken menus and prices. Christmas sponge cakes which are tremendously popular on Christmas day are already available on order.

You needn’t be a predominantly Christian nation to cash in on Christmas. Christmas day is not a holiday in Japan. Students still go to school and everyone else goes to work, yet the season is a major sales period. Another difference is that Christmas abruptly ends on December 25th. In a matter of hours all Christmas decorations give way to New Year’s displays. New Year’s being the most important holiday in the Japanese calendar.

Despite the majority of Japanese people not observing such festivals and holidays, the attention paid to Halloween and Christmas is quite amazing. This time of year really is a treat if you want to see beautiful Christmas light displays. Most cities in Japan dedicate entire parks and neighborhoods to such displays. The displays in Tokyo’s bay-side area, Shinjuku’s Time Square and Roppongi Hills are well worth taking the time to go see.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pampered Pets

It’s hard to find a person anywhere who doesn’t like animals. Naturally, it’s the same scenario in Japan. In the English speaking world we tend to live in places that allow for keeping large dogs and perhaps a few cats. The love of cats and dogs is shared in Japan but it’s no secret that the average Japanese home is somewhat smaller than that of anything we’re used to. A smaller home means keeping smaller pets.

Probably one of the first pets a Japanese child is introduced to is the beetle. Particularly popular among young boys, beetles are hunted, collected and even sold. Some rare varieties of beetle can sell for staggering sums. The beetle is an ideal pet for Japanese children. Its small size makes it suitable for any home, and their abundance in nature makes them cheap (in most cases).

Other miniature pets that are extremely popular are hamsters and turtles. Again, due to their size they can be kept with a minimum of fuss. These critters are more expensive than beetles but are still relatively cheap. Hamsters typically sell for something around 3-5000 yen, and baby turtles sometimes as cheap as a few hundred yen.

Just as in many other countries around the world cats and dogs are probably the most popular pet. Miniature dogs tend to be most common (again, due to living space), but can fetch some high prices. Even a tiny chihuahua can sell for hundreds of thousands of yen. Cats are a popular choice also. Due to their wild nature, they don’t need to spend a great deal of time indoors which is ideal when you don’t have a lot of space or are busy. Stray cats are often adopted in Japan but pedigree varieties, like their canine counterparts, sell for lofty sums.

A trip to a Japanese pet shop is quite the experience. There are all manner of species available; birds, reptiles and even small monkeys can be found. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of pet shops in Japan though is the range of pet supplies and accessories one can find. Treats, toys, clothes and even goggles for your pet do a healthy turn-over in Japan. A recent government survey found that growth in pet-related expenses for Japanese families has exceeded regular family expenditures.

The pet-industry in Japan is big and is getting bigger. Small dogs in sweaters may sound odd at first but for their owners doggy fashion is no laughing matter.

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