Friday, April 29, 2011

Will Miss #314 - the genkan

The genkan is the Japanese word for the sunken entryway that is in every Japanese home. What's so great about it? Well, let's start with the fact that they are usually made with outdoor tile, concrete, or other durable surfaces. Dirty or rough-soled shoes, rain or snow run-off, etc. don't damage them and there is no expectation that the area is going to look fashionable or beautiful. They're also very convenient for resting a dripping umbrella without fear of warping flooring or soaking a rug or carpet. Additionally, the raised lip allows you to sit on the clean floor with your feet in the genkan to tie your shoelaces. It's much more comfortable (especially for people with back problems) putting on shoes in this way than bending down for the duration.

I think the genkan is a pretty nifty and practical architectural element, and I'll miss it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Won't Miss #314 - low ceilings and doorways

Compare the height of these guys to the door behind them. You get an idea of the general height, though this isn't the best picture to illustrate my point.

I learned recently that my husband and I are each of absolutely average height for Americans at 5' 9" (175 cm.) and 5' 4" (162.5 cm) respectively. That means we are neither rather tall nor short. The ceilings in Japan aren't a problem for us when it comes to bumping our heads, though they can be so for taller Western folks. However, they are low enough to cause other problems even for those of average height. In particular, the lighting fixtures end up hanging down so low that one move with your arms can send them swinging madly. Since the fixtures are in the middle of small rooms with little free space, my husband in particular finds himself whacking the paper lantern or the strings hanging from smoke alarms from the mere act of moving his arms to put on a shirt. I often snag such things while messing with the vacuum cleaner hose, especially if I'm doing the required "vacuum the walls" business in Tokyo*.

I won't miss the low ceilings and doorways.

*You're supposed to do this because of the air pollution and to keep things cleaner for your air conditioner; I was once chastised by an AC repairman for not vacuuming my walls enough.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Will Miss #313 - miso soup

People talk a lot about authenticity and food, and I generally think it's a bunch of snobbery put forth by people who need to elevate themselves (via their tastes in food) above others about a trivial point. However, after years of eating Japanized American food and some experience eating Americanized Japanese food, I have no choice but to change my thinking in this regard. The origin and handling of the materials has a profound effect on the outcome, and having a bowl of miso soup at a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo is not the same as having one at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. Even when people who know what they are doing are manning the kitchen, it still tastes better here, and I'm guessing that has to do with the authentic materials.

I love the salty, savory goodness and the belly-warming and filling qualities of miso soup I'll miss it, as it can only be had in Japan.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Won't Miss #313 - "law and order" moral mentality

Those who study psychology are familiar with Kohlberg's stages of moral development. For those who don't know about it, this theory breaks down the way our moral sense develops into 3 levels with various stages. At the second level is "law and order" determined morality. Japan is a shame-based culture, not a morality-based one (this ties into the lack of a strong religious backing which I praised previously). In conjunction with a heavy emphasis on getting along with everyone (not being the nail that sticks out by questioning or disagreeing), this has created a culture in which morality for many people is defined not by ethical principles or deep consideration of the implications of an act, but by what is legally allowable. It's very likely that this is one of the underpinnings of the high level of approval of the death penalty in Japan. It's legal, so it's okay. If it's not legal, it's not okay. The question is rarely pondered more deeply than that.

I won't miss discussions about the morality of a situation with Japanese folks which end all too often with, "it's okay because it's legal."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Will Miss #312 - food on sticks

Back home, certain types of food are sold on sticks. Mainly, corn dogs, cotton candy, and lollipops. When it comes to "real food",  you're more likely to get a bowl with a plastic utensil. In Japan, if it can be threaded on a stick, the Japanese will find a way. Fruit, vegetables, seafood, and any type of meat you can think of are skewered and served up for one-handed consumption.This method also creates far less material waste.

This is far handier when you're walking around and want to have a nosh than messing around with a plastic container and a flimsy plastic fork, and I'll miss it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Won't Miss #312 - Akagi Gari

Sometimes a mascot offers up such a disturbing image that I'm actually turned off of the company's products. Enter Akagi's "Gari" mascot. The characters huge maw reminds me of a slavering pervert than a kid who wants a tasty ice treat. You can't tell so well from this picture of a tanabata festival decoration, but here's a picture I pinched from Akagi's site:

He reminds me a bit of a Mad Magazine caricature. My friend Shawn said he appears to have an impressive crotch plate.

Every time I'm perusing the freezer case, seeing Gari's gaping mouth and manic eyes, I have to look away, and I won't miss that.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Will Miss #311 - free calendars

A gorgeous sumo calendar I was given for 2011. Best calendar ever.

At the end of every year, you'll see a lot of people walking around with shopping bags full of calendars. It's common in Japan for various companies to give customers a free calendar as they go around visiting them and thanking them for their patronage. Most of the time, these aren't the wimpy little freebies banks give out in America. Many of them are big, colorful, and have beautiful pictures. Companies like Canon, because it is known for its printers, make gorgeous ones with large pictures of beautiful scenes in nature. The pictures are so beautiful that we used to keep the top half (with the picture) and decorate our work cubicles with them for years to come.

I'll miss getting free and often beautiful calendars at the end of the year.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Won't Miss #311 - buying by the case

One of the best resources for homesick or thrifty foreign folks in Japan is the Foreign Buyer's Club. It is a mail order seller that imports food from the United States and sells much of it by the case. If you need specialty foods or items (like sugar substitutes or sugar-free foods for diabetics) or simply would like to buy things which cost a fortune in Japan as individual imports at a price somewhat closer to "reasonable", then the FBC is a very helpful option. For my husband and I, we use the FBC to buy things like American pumpkin, Splenda sweetener, and chickpeas. The former can't be had in Japan (and I use it in baking) and the latter is often outrageously priced when and if it can be had. The only problem is that you often have to buy a huge quantity of these types of items. It can sometimes take years to get through a large amount of canned goods and I often wish I could just buy a can of something when I needed it instead of having little option than to buy 12 or 24 of such things. There's also the issue of a small apartment with little storage making buying in a large quantity a hassle.

I won't miss having to buy basic foods by the case, paying a fortune for one unit as an import, or choosing to never have them again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Will Miss #310 - the golden turd building

In Asakusa, there is a famous building which foreign folks often refer to as "the golden turd" building. It was designed by a famous French designer (Philippe Starck) and is occupied by Asahi Breweries. The building itself is less of interest than the fact that the people at Asahi at some point were shown a design, which obviously didn't look anything like a golden flame, and went ahead and built it anyway. And even if they didn't realize it was going to look like gilded poo at the design stage, they surely know now, yet they still leave it right there for everyone who sees it to titter at.

I'll miss the way this building shows that some Japanese companies have the guts to live with an embarrassing mistake created by a famous person than admit to it by tearing it down.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Won't Miss #310 - expats

I don't know if this lovely lady is an expat, but she probably is a foreigner (probably).

Many Japanese believe that a foreigner is a foreigner is a foreigner, particularly if they are of the Caucasian variety, and they think we all make a lot of money and have an easier life than they do. I believe that this idea is fueled by the existence of expatriates. Expats are the "trust fund" babies eating from silver spoons of the gaijin (foreigner) world. These are people who do not live the same life as Japanese people or the gaijin grunts. They are sent over here by their companies and tend to have their path smoothly paved. They don't have to deal with much in the way of bureaucracy, and often have translators or help when there's a bump in the road of Japanese life. They live in places that are much larger than the rest of ours (yet they feel are "tiny"), and their astronomical rents are paid by their companies. They live like long-term tourists dabbling in language and cultural pursuits. All of this isn't a problem except that they're also a bit snobbish and tend to prefer to keep amongst "their own kind". They look down on us gaijin rabble who secure our own jobs, negotiate our own rent contracts, and deal with shopping in Japanese markets (rather than the overpriced import shops in the tony "gaijin ghetto" areas), and even when they have a chance to associate with us, they often prefer to make friends with other expats.

I won't miss the classist attitude of some expats and their ignorant notions of life in Japan based on living in a cloistered and specialized environment.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Will Miss #309 - childhood memories (askew)

Since I grew up a little less than a half century ago and the world has really moved on since I was a young pup, I rarely see things which bring on a sense of nostalgia for my youth. It's not merely that I'm in Japan, but also that the "stuff" I played with isn't around anymore. Occasionally, I'll run across something both reminds me of my childhood, but also is a reoriented memory that makes it a "Japan-only" experience. For instance, I grew up with wooden maps of the United States that were meant to teach me the position, names, and capitals of every state. When I saw a similar map for Japan, I had this odd sense of nostalgia that was suddenly skewed.

I'll miss the unique experience of seeing these types of things which both are and are not a part of my deepest memories at the same time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Won't Miss #309 - sitting on the floor

Sitting on the ground is what humans did before chairs were invented. Putting a pillow on the floor doesn't make the experience appreciably better, especially for those of us with bad backs and knees that find even brief periods of time with bended joints conducive to painful stiffening. Despite significant advances in chair technology, many people living in Japan still have furniture which is like a chair with its legs ripped off (essentially a bottom and a back).

I won't miss visiting people or going to restaurants that offer no choice but to sit on the floor, nor will my knees and back.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Will Miss #308 - omikuji

An omikuji with a small gold-colored trinket. You can see the box on the left has coin slots and a hole to reach in and take a fortune.

"Omikuji" are fortunes that can be purchased at Japanese shrines. Usually, they cost 100 yen and are little rolled-up bits of paper with messages on them. Sometimes, the fortunes include another trinket (and cost a little more). There are two aspects to this which I like. One is simply the randomness and surprise nature of the messages (though they do tend to fall into certain categories). The other is the fact that these are offered on the honor system. No one is watching to see if you pay for what you take, but I'm certain everyone pays anyway.

I'll miss omikuji, and their association with the superstitions, spiritual life, and honesty of the Japanese people.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Won't Miss #308 - rakugan

One of the most beautiful Japanese sweets is rakugan. These are often served as part of Japanese tea ceremony and are pressed starches, bean or other types of powders, and sugar. They are extremely dry, too sweet, and also don't taste like much of anything. They are a perfect example of style over substance as they look good, but don't offer much in the texture or flavor department (unless you're a fan of sugar).

I'm sure there are people who love to chow down on desiccated pressed powders and sugar, but I'm not one of them so I won't miss rakugan.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Will Miss #307 - Tokyo Metro Yellow Manner Posters

There is a particular series of "manner" posters that are regularly issued on the subways. They are always the same color scheme and from the same artist. The style is peculiar, but memorable and the messages in English are sometimes strange and surreal. Most Japan bloggers have pictures of the various posters on their blogs as new ones are released, but an easier way to see them is to check out the Tokyo Metro site.

I'll miss seeing these strangely affecting manners posters.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Won't Miss #307 - Japanese coffee

I know that people are thinking that American coffee is famous for being mud water and tastes terrible. I've heard that. Keep in mind that I didn't drink coffee until I came to Japan and my exposure to American-style coffee didn't come until after the advent of Starbucks. And, further, please keep in mind that this isn't some sort of competition between the U.S. and Japan but a blog about what I personally like and don't like, and I don't like Japanese coffee. I'm guessing there is a difference in roasting with higher acidity in the coffee as a result and that's a reason I don't like the taste of Japanese coffee. I've also found that Japanese coffee is either nuclear strong or massively weak.

Whatever the deal, I'm not a fan of Japanese coffee and I won't miss it.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Will Miss #306 - "chibification"

A tengu, transformed from its ugly, fearsome self into this cute little doll.

Most people who are interested in Japan know the word "chibi". For those who don't, I'll say that it means small or child-like, but "cute" is generally also a part of that. In Japan, there seems to be literally  nothing that can't be "chibi-fied" or turned into a small, cute thing and many pop culture icons are examples of "chibi". Though I am surrounded by cute things on a daily basis, I am taken by surprise at some of the things that have been altered in this fashion, and those are the things which I'll miss. Something which is adult-oriented, spiritual, or just plain ugly can be "chibified" and it's an interesting sight.

I'll miss these surprisingly "chibified" things.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Won't Miss #306 - carb and calorie bombs

This plain-looking bit of sponge cake is a calorie bomb waiting to explode onto your thighs.

Early on in my time in Japan, most products did not have complete nutritional data on them. In particular, calorie information was not commonly given. These days, you find it on most, but not all foods. Generally, mass-produced food by major companies have such information, but traditional snacks or foods made by smaller places do not. Back when I first got here, I tried to gauge the caloric impact of a food by its sweetness or size. If it wasn't very big or sweet, I figured, "it can't be too bad." When it comes to the rows and rows of not-too-sweet packaged pastries that fill the shelves of convenience stores and supermarkets, I couldn't have been more wrong. One of my favorites was a steamed cake that I have pictured above. It's about 10 cm/4 in. in diameter, has no filling or frosting, and is only lightly sweet. I ate a lot of these back in the day. Now I know that they are 460 calories apiece and won't touch them. These pastries are monster carb and calorie bombs despite the fact that they look and taste like they'd be much less bad for you than say, a Twinkie. You can actually eat three Twinkies for the caloric cost of the sponge cake above (and still come out 10 calories below) and they both have trans fats.

I won't miss these calorific pastries.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Will Miss #305 - cigarette brands

When I was a very small child, I used to wander around my grandparents house during my mother's visits with her mother. Since I'm 46 as of this posting, that was a long time ago. My grandfather used to collect old cigarette packs, cards, and paraphernalia and I'd entertain myself while my mother prattled with her mother by looking through his collection. That means I saw some of the types of packs, ads, etc. that showed up in the 1940's and '50's. In Japan, it's like living in those "thrilling days of yesteryear" when it comes to cigarette branding. Some of them really have the feel of the ephemeral ads from days in the past when there wasn't political correctness, a need to be cool, or knowledge that smoking can kill.

I'll miss seeing these funky, nostalgic, and (seemingly) unaware-of-the-lack-of political-correctness brands of cigarettes.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Won't Miss #305 - mistrust of imported food

One of the bits of marketing that you find appears on some food designed to be fed to infants and toddlers, as well as the odd product for adults, is the fact that the ingredients are made in Japan. When a package says, "made with rice grown in Japan," I wonder why it even matters. I think one of the reasons is that many Japanese people don't trust the safety of food grown in other countries. In particular, they don't trust Chinese produce (and pot stickers, or as they are called here, "gyoza") and American beef. If there is an isolated incident with a product made abroad having a food safety issue, the Japanese media seize upon it and blow it to ridiculous proportions. When a Japanese company has the same issue, it's rarely mentioned. This has caused an enduring idea that only domestically produced food can be truly trusted.

The idea that Japanese food is the safest food in the world and one can spend more money on it in order to feel that little Taro or Mariko will grow up healthy and strong is clearly a marketing ploy, and it's one that I won't miss.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Will Miss #304 - Shinjuku Illumination

Illumination, or lights, pop up all over Japan as the Christmas season approaches. There are some particularly spectacular ones in various areas of Japan which eclipse the one in Shinjuku for sheer breathtaking scope and beauty. The Kobe Luminarie is just one of them. However, it's not all about spectacle or beauty. It's also about atmosphere. The Shinjuku illumination has a special charm because it has turned into a place for lovers to stroll and display their affection publicly in a manner and concentration which is rare for Japan. It is a lover's walk and a cuddle-fest at certain times of day, especially when cooler temperatures encourage holding one another close. Christmas is often viewed as a romantic holiday in Japan anyway, and the area around where the Shinjuku illumination displays this aspect well. It also doesn't hurt that it's a lot closer to my home than any of the big ticket illuminations that are very far afield.

I like seeing real romance in public in a country which frowns on its open display, and I'll miss the atmosphere and blue lights of the Shinjuku Illumination.