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.

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