Shopping is fun and convenient in Japan, and less expensive than in my experiences when traveling back to Australia recently. Australia’s economy has boomed and as inflation increases the cost of living has become a huge burden. Not so in Japan, although there are exceptions such as the cities of Tokyo and Osaka. Many of the supermarkets here are 24/7, as are all the convenience stores. There are also lots of ‘100 yen’ stores, and some of those have entered Australia such as ‘Daiso’. They are a fun and cheap place in which to shop, as they have many novelty items and souvenir goods as well as common household products. (Photo: dannychoo.com)
You can even buy souvenirs at the local cinema. Almost every cinema in Japan, in addition to the obligatory ‘snack bar’, has a souvenir stand (which I never saw at cinemas in Australia). It sells movie posters, poster books, movie magazines, toys, models, stationery, postcards, stickers, badges, keyrings, caps, hand towels and various other souvenirs, all based on the movies being shown at the time.
Vending machines are famous in Japan, and even the cinema uses them to sell movie tickets. There are ATMs everywhere, and the food and drink vending machines that Japan is well known for, but there are also vending machines for things such as magazines, books, DVDs, small items of clothing, postage stamps, toys, train/bus tickets, love hotels, fun parks, and so forth. Many Japanese people feel more comfortable using a machine rather than talking to a human operator whom they don’t know. Furthermore, it’s more private.
You can even use a vending machine to buy a ticket on Japan’s famous Shinkansen also known as the ‘bullet train’. Riding a ‘high speed’ train is one of the things you can do in Japan that you can’t do in Australia, although that is set to change in the future. These days I don’t use the train much, but I do drive every day. Unlike Australia, where car registration is a yearly thing, and maintenance is only done when necessary, car registration in Japan is biannually, and car maintenance is carried out every year to ensure safety on roads. At first I thought it was a bit of a ‘rip-off’ having to have compulsory maintenance every two years, but it’s kept my car in excellent condition as well as keeping me safe. Japan is also safer in that it has zero tolerance for drink driving (which used to be a problem). The drink driving limit here is zero, whereas in Australia it is limited to .05, which I thought was interesting.
G’day! (Something I rarely get to say in Japan, except when teaching students about Australian greetings and customs). I say “G’day” to students as often as possible, but often my students greet me with either “hello” or “hi”, or in Japanese, and I respond accordingly. This blog continues on from my last, discussing things I do here in Japan that I didn’t do in Australia. Today’s topics include clothing, seasons, food/eating and health. I hope it provides a window into my life here in Japan.
One thing that I in particular have to do in Japan is to go to a ‘large size clothing’ store. In Australia, I was ‘average’ and bought ‘medium’ sized clothing. However, compared to the slim Japanese folks (who often have slightly shorter arms and legs), I am an ‘extra large’ and my size is usually not catered to in regular department stores. Luckily, there is a ‘large size’ clothing shop that sells high quality clothing and brand-label suits in my town of Matsusaka. I also buy my shoes there, as my feet are 29 cm in length, whereas the average Japanese males wears shoes sized between 24 cm and 27cm. It’s simply part of living in Japan.
Well, it’s still winter here, and in fact February is the month in which it snows most in Japan. Lots of Australians will fly over this month to snow on the slopes at Niseko in Hokkaido, or at Hakuba in Nagano prefecture. Last week saw temperatures of -3 degrees, and sometimes the high was only zero! This week is slightly warmer thankfully. You can imagine what January was like! Hence, over winter here, I wear something I never wore in Australia – ‘long Johns’! Yep, ankle length thermal underwear and long-sleeve thermal singlets. I tried to resist doing this when I first arrived in Japan, out of some kind of macho Aussie pride, but after catching colds regularly in winter, I began wearing them. Not only was I warmer throughout the day, but it felt more comfortable, too. I usually stop wearing them in March.
I wear a long winter coat, a scarf and gloves, too, as I trudge out through the ice and snow to my car. I keep them on in the car (as inside the car is freezing) and also in to work, where I can finally shed my outer layer in the warmth of the office air conditioner. I never even owned a winter jacket or coat in Australia. Gloves? I thought they were something that fashionable women wore. LOL. But now every winter I wear fleecy-lined ‘driving’ gloves and a woolen coat. I wear a hat as well to keep my head warm, but I wore a hat in Australia to guard against the sun so that is not something different for me.
It seems to take me ages to get dressed these days. After all, it’s mid-winter and there are so many layers! This is not something I ever had to do in Australia, especially on the Gold Coast. I rarely wore a jacket on the Gold Coast. But then, there are many things I do differently in Japan, even apart from the obvious things that most people immediately think of, such as bowing, taking one's shoes off, using chopsticks, speaking Japanese, eating raw fish, drinking rice wine, and so on. This blog is about that. I’ll talk more about clothes later, but first let’s look at customs and culture, and then also discuss differences in the seasons, cuisine, health, shopping, transport and school.
Whereas we only take our shoes off in Australia (upon entering the home) if the house has new carpet or if our shoes are muddy, it’s customary for Japanese folks to take their shoes off as soon as they get home. The tiled entranceways are designed for that, and there is usually a ‘shoe box’ near the front door.
It goes without saying that we bow here instead of shaking hands, but people also ‘nod’ their heads all the time – little gestures of respect used when greeting in the morning, thanking somebody for a small favor, or even talking on the phone. It’s so ingrained here that we take it for granted after a while. Most folks don’t even realize they’re doing it.
One of Japan’s most charming customs is that of gift-giving. It’s a gift giving country, and one is expected to give gifts when visiting someone’s house as a guest, or upon returning from a holiday. At work, we often receive small ‘souvenirs’ from colleagues who have just returned from an overseas trip. We must remember to do the same when going back to Australia; when we return to Japan, and most importantly our workplace, we present our colleagues (and especially our bosses) with little gifts from Australia. It’s the polite thing to do. Folks sometimes buy their friends a small gift when out shopping, for no reason other than it was something that they know their friend would like. This is reciprocated of course.
In Australia, I always signed my name on documents and official paperwork. But in Japan, people use a personalized ‘seal’. Mandy and I had our personal seals made long ago, and use them on a daily basis here. Japanese folks have their family name in stylized kanji characters, and Mandy and I have our names in Katakana (one of the three Japanese alphabets – Katakana is used for foreign names, places and things). ‘Hanko’ usually come in a cylindrical shape, and the round end where the name is written is placed on a stamp pad and then pushed onto a paper form or document. Everyone carries their ‘hanko’ with them.
There was no 'White Christmas' this year, nor a white New Year's Eve. In fact, winters seem to be getting milder in Japan, at least in Matsusaka, Mie where I live. Of course, Matsusaka is beside the sea, but then so is Tokyo, which received a record amount of snow, whereas there was scarcely any to see in Matsusaka. Someone said to me the other day that being located next to the sea makes it more humid, but my understanding is that humidity leads to more snow, not less. There are many cold, dry places that have sub-zero temperatures with almost no snow. So with regard to Matsusaka, is it 'Global Warming', or 'Climate Change'? It would certainly appear that way, as the amount of snow that has fallen in Mori (in the mountains above Matsusaka) has been gradually decreasing since the last big fall we had in 2014. (See photos below of winter in Mori, 2014). Each year since then, there has been less snow.
The photos above are from 2014, and these photos below are from 2018 - notice the difference! (^o^)
I'm not complaining, mind you. Now that we live in Matsusaka city, and not in the traditional mountain village of Mori, it's actually more convenient not having snow. There's no need for snow tires for one thing, and it's not such a nuisance driving to work. But just the difference is astounding. Locals that I've spoken to in Mori say that it's been happening for 30 years! Apparently the big 'snow blow' in 2014 was minor compared to what they used to experience three decades ago. It made some neighbors there feel nostalgic about the 'old days'. Mori town is about 35 years old, established when they were building the Hachisu Dam and establishing a lumber industry, but most folks moved there approximately 30 years ago.
At that time there was even a ski slope in Mori, such was the amount of snow that fell back then. Just a few years ago, on New Year's Eve, Mandy and I placed our champagne bottle up to the neck in the snow - we found that while it might have become frozen in the freezer of our fridge, the snow kept it just perfectly chilled. We haven't been able to do that for the last three New Years. (First world problems, I know! LOL).
I grew up on the Gold Coast in Australia, which is a tropical beach-side city similar to coastal cities in California, Hawaii and various places in Okinawa, Japan or throughout the South Pacific islands. Hence, I never experienced the four seasons as one does in New York, for example, or in many parts of Europe.
Autumn is an exceptionally beautiful season in Japan, and many Japanese folks go driving and hiking at this time of year to see the gorgeous autumn leaves as they change colors. The yellow, orange and red leaves often make it appear as if the hillsides are on fire. There are still occasional barbecues at this time of the year, as families and groups of friends sit outside and observe the spectacle that nature provides.
Last year, Mandy and I decided to do just that. We currently live in Matsusaka city, but we still have a place in the mountains above Matsusaka, and drove there one weekend in November to check out the fall leaves. On the way up the mountain, we admired the beautiful bridges and the little autumn bonuses like pampas grass on the side of the road, autumn foliage on view as we drove, and roadside flowers, not to mention clear blue skies (with the obligatory hawk or kite of course).
We stopped at a roadside tea house, and after enjoying some green tea and traditional snacks, we enjoyed a stroll while checking out the autumn colors. The view from the lookout was spectacular, too.
Osaka, a city where the bars and clubs never shut down, is home to almost three million residents, to the Hanshin Tigers baseball team, and also one of many operating bases for the ‘Yakuza’, the Japanese Mafia. Osaka – Japan’s ‘party town’. (Excerpt from Gold of the Rising Sun, a fiction novel by CJ Ryall)
My wife, Mandy, lived in Osaka from 1991 to 1993. I joined her there for a year, while we were still girlfriend and boyfriend, in 1993. I also visited her in Osaka in the summer of 1992, during which time we had our photo taken in front of Osaka castle. Recently we had the opportunity to drive to Osaka so as to renew our Australian passports with the Australian Consulate there. Times have changed and these days Aussies are required to present their passports in person, rather than just send them through the mail. It seems we have changed as well. We had our photo taken in front of Osaka castle and compared it to the one taken 25 years ago – the difference was remarkable, for me at least!
Having lived in Osaka for the time we did, I chose Osaka as the main setting for my novel, Gold of the Rising Sun. My story is about a young American teaching English in one of Osaka’s English Conversation Schools. He runs into some trouble when his Japanese girlfriend turns out to be the daughter of a local Yakuza crime gang. But of course there is a lot more to Osaka city than English language schools and Yakuza. Osaka is an amazing city, certainly a party town at night, but also a marvelous place to visit and one not to be missed when touring Japan. In the daytime, with its working population, it is the second largest city in the country. (Yokohama, residentially, is the second largest city after working hours).
Osaka is a port city, situated at the mouth of the Yodo River (Yodogawa) on Osaka Bay. Being accessible by boat helped Osaka develop from a tiny fishing village 500 years BC into a proper rural town, with its own castle palace in ancient Osumi (Higashi-Yodogawa), and into Japan’s capital in 645 AD. The city of Nara became the capital in the late 700’s. However, Osaka remained a castle town with a burgeoning sea port and a lively economy.
Buddhists (Jodo Shinshu) built a huge temple in Osaka in the 1400’s, but this was attacked and razed to the ground by the Warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1570. In 1583, another of the three famous Warlords of the time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had Osaka Castle built there. He died in 1597, and at the battle of Sekigahara (in Gifu prefecture), the third Warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his enemies and became Shogun of all Japan. He made his capital in Edo (now Tokyo), and established the Tokugawa Shogunate. Under that rule, Osaka castle was attacked and fell to Tokugawa forces in 1615. Tokugawa’s son, the new Shogun, rebuilt Osaka castle in 1620. Much of that construction still stands today, especially the rock walls. The castle itself was rebuilt in 1660, and again in 1868 after a violent end to the Tokugawa era. The Meiji era began, during which time Osaka castle became the Osaka Army Arsenal. Osaka castle has since been restored in 1928, 1945 after World War II, and again in 1997.
No doubt in recent weeks you’ve read about Korea, or more specifically North Korea, due to the current missile crisis and the heated political words between U.S. President Trump and Kim Jong-un. For many Japanese people, North Korea has has proven to be a very troublesome Asian neighbor, from the Korean War to its kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and now its current obsession with missile tests. But how much do you actually know about North Korea, and the Korean peninsula in general? Why is it like the way it is and how did it become like this? America is not the only country which has a troubled relationship with Korea, and the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ in particular. Life on the Korean peninsula has been around a lot longer than most people think. It is older than the United States of America, and much older than Japan. And for most of that time, it has been a country in turmoil.
The oldest fossils found on the peninsula date back to 300,000 B.C., but verified human remains are dated at 100,000 B.C. Scientific analysis of human artifacts such as man-made pottery show that they originated around 10,000 B.C.in the Paleolithic period. This is roughly the same time that the first Native Americans appeared in North America. More sophisticated pottery remains have been discovered from the Neolithic period (6,000 B.C.). The first civilized society on the Korean peninsula is believed to have emerged two to three thousand years B.C., known as Gojoseon. Peace on the peninsula didn’t last long however.
Chinese forces, from the Han Dynasty, attacked and defeated Gojoseon in 108 B.C. Thus began Korea’s long and troubled relationship with China, which still continues to this day. That initial relationship lasted for four centuries through various successive Chinese dynasties. By 313 AD, a new society emerged called Goguryeo which annexed all of the Chinese powers on the peninsula. From there began the ‘Three Kingdoms’ period in Korea. This time in Korea’s history was also the beginning of conflicts between Southern Korea and Northern Korea. The peninsula was briefly unified in the 5th and 6th centuries, and during this period Korean forces defeated Chinese forces for the very first time. The area which is now known as Seoul began to flourish around the 7th century, and Buddhism was also introduced from China which then made its way across the East China Sea to Japan.
Japan was experiencing its own cultural boom in the Heian period (8th to 11th centuries) and evidence shows that much of its culture was influenced by Korea at that time. Japan sent scholars to both China and Korea to learn as much as they could about writing systems, art, Buddhism, and so forth. Goguryeo became Goryeo over time, and this was the precursor to the name Korea. Hence, modern Korean society truly appeared in the 10th century. Buddhism spread throughout the land, laws were established, and the first civil services were initiated. Even the first metal movable type was invented in Korea in the 13th century. However, it still had to defend itself against attacks by Mongolian and Chinese military. Following a successful defense of its territories, a golden era of peace and prosperity began.
Literature, science, religion, education, philosophy and so forth all matured during this period. Wishing to continue development and avoid war, Korea entered into a relationship with Kublai Khan and enjoyed a relatively peaceful friendship with both China and Mongolia. Hanseong (modern-day Seoul) became the capital and many palaces were built. Diplomatic relations and trade began with the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa), Vietnam, Thai (Thailand), Burma, Laos, the Philippines and so on, in addition to China and Mongolia. In the 15th century, King Sejong the Great developed the Korean language, known as Hangul.
Japan has lots of public holidays, and in August it happens to be ‘Yama no Hi’ (Mountain Day). It’s a new holiday that only began in 2016, although it was officially introduced by the Government in 2014. Japanese people work very hard, and many employees are reluctant to take holidays; August was one of only two months that didn’t have a public holiday. (June is now the only month without a public holiday). The government wanted to encourage workers to take a day off, and a movement headed by law maker Seishiro Eto suggested a day for people to enjoy and appreciate Japan’s mountains, which comprise over 70 percent of Japan’s land mass. Naturally the Japanese Alpine Club supported this initiative as well.
It also made sense to have this particular day in August, as it falls during summer vacation when students have time off from school, and the hot and humid weather is also a good time to head up into the mountains where it is a little cooler and less humid. My wife and I live in Mori, a small traditional town in the mountains above Matsusaka, and it is usually at least three degrees cooler there than it is down in the city. Furthermore, there is less humidity and there are alpine breezes that are so refreshing on a hot summer’s day. Fortunately, our place there is also situated right next to a mountain river, which has many wonderful swimming spots and rock pools. We love to head up there on weekends and in holidays.
One of the best ways to enjoy Mountain Day is to climb a mountain, and there are many mountains in Japan to choose from. The most popular mountain by far is the iconic Fuji-san, or Mt Fuji. At 3,776 meters, Fuji-san is Japan’s highest mountain, and every summer (mostly July and August) hundreds of thousands of people ascend its slopes. The last known official count was in 2009, when 300,000 climbers hiked to the summit. Mandy and I climbed to the top of Fuji-san in the summer of 2000. You can read about our ascent here:
It’s tough going, especially if you're unfit like I was at the time (despite 3 months in the city gym), but it’s slopes aren’t so steep and little mountain-climbing gear is necessary. One does not need pitons, hammers, cams or rope to climb Fuji-san. A mountain pole however is useful (available at the 5th station souvenir shop), as weariness tends to set in at 3,000 meters, and it helps to have shoes with good grip, appropriate clothing, some food and water, a flashlight, and money for provisions. Some people get altitude sickness near the peak, and use pressurized air. Make sure to take a smart phone or camera as well.
While Fuji-san is the most famous mountain in Japan, and its image the most photographed, there are actually about 350 mountain peaks considered safe for climbing in Japan, all easily accessible using cars, trains or buses from city areas. Out of those 350 mountains are 100 that over time have been selected as “100 Famous Japanese Mountains”. You can check them out using the link below. However, in this article, I’d like to outline just a few of the most well-known mountains which are popular for hiking and/or mountain climbing. Ironically, the first four (including Mt Fuji) have the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th highest peaks.
In the ancient hills of eastern Kyoto, there is a magnificent Buddhist temple called Kiyomizu-dera. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Kyoto, along with the Golden Pavilion shrine (Kinkaku-ji), Nijo castle, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, Ryoanji (with its famous ‘zen’ rock garden) and the beautiful Arashiyama in Kyoto’s foothills, among others.
Thousands of people visit Kiyomizu-dera daily, and marvel at its spectacular design, as well as sampling the blessed holy waters which flow within its grounds and were the basis for the temple’s name. The word Kiyomizu means ‘clear or pure water’. A pristine waterfall flows down from a natural spring higher up in the mountains, to form three streams which cascade over a special structure within the grounds of Kiyomizu temple.
Every day, visitors line up to drink from one of those three streams. Some folks will return until they have drunk from all three streams. Depending on who you talk to, the three streams represent love, health and fortune. Others say it is ‘holy water’ which will aid one’s spirituality. A few critics claim it is only water, and a gimmick to attract tourists. However, the stream existed and was admired long before the tourist boom of the 20th century, and innumerous monks have sung sutras, prayed and worshipped here at Kiyomizu-dera. Today the temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The temple was first built in the eighth century, in the year 778, which was during the Heian period in Japan. It was founded by the shogun (general) Sakanoue no Tamuramaro. The current structures that one sees today however were constructed in 1633, during the Tokugawa era, under the orders of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. The architectural design is unique in that despite being built entirely of wood, there are no nails used. Rather it uses interlocking timbers and other carpentry techniques making the use of nails unnecessary. 78 pillars with interwoven lateral beams support the four-story high base of the temple and its famous verandah, often referred to as ‘the stage’.
One of the things I love about living in Japan is ‘Cool Biz’. If you’ve ever lived in Japan even for just one summer, you would most definitely be familiar with this. However if you live outside of Japan (as most of my family and some of my friends do), then ‘Cool Biz’ might be a term that you would associate with the sale of freezers, or cooler boxes, or ice cream. But 'Cool Biz' does not refer to a cool (or cooling) business.
Cool Biz is not the name of an air conditioning company, either – quite the opposite in fact. In response to reports about ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’, the government initiated a campaign to reduce the use of air conditioning in schools, businesses, and offices throughout Japan. It did this by breaking protocol and encouraging people to wear clothing more appropriate over the hot and humid summer season. This meant that women could dress more casually in lighter summer wear, and men could also leave their jackets and neckties at home from the start of (May or) June through to the end of September or October.
I work at a private school in Tsu, Mie Prefecture (where formal attire is usually required) and it is an absolute blessing not to have to wear a suit jacket or tie to work every day during summer! Let's face it - summer in Japan is hot and humid. Thank goodness for ‘Cool Biz’. I feel much more comfortable with an open collar, and much cooler with short-sleeved work shirts and trousers made of a lighter cotton fabric.
Japan’s Traditional Sport
Sumo is Japan’s traditional national sport and is one of the most popular spectator sports in the country. Sumo has its roots in ancient Shinto religious rites to ensure good harvests. It is believed to be at least 1500 years old. For me it is the traditional aspects and rituals of this ancient sport that really appeal. I will briefly explain about some of the more common traditions and rituals in this post.
See More by John Asano
John Asano is a web developer and freelance writer living in Gifu, Japan. Originally from Melbourne Australia, he writes for Japan Australia, a blog dedicated to Japan travel, culture, traditions and modern life in Japan as well as Japan Travel Advice, a website dedicated to travel in Japan.