Culture from Kawaii to Counter

Hello all! It was requested that I start providing some pictures of the food I eat while I’m here in Tokyo for my last two weeks. I’m not a huge picture-taker, but I’ll try my best to provide some images of the delicious dishes I’ve been able to try. While I’m on the subject of food, here’s a quick cultural tidbit on Japan. Konbinis (Japanese convenience stores spelled コンビニ with Katakana) are one of the best inventions of Japanese convenience culture. Now, if you’re thinking of a convenience store and picturing what you’d find in the US, you’re dead wrong. Japanese Konbinis are non-sketchy little markets that sell a host of items depending on which you go to. You can get items from toiletries and make-up to a full-out curry dinner and espresso lattes. Ian and I go almost every day to a Family Mart close to our work for lunch. The major Konbini companies are 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawsons. I’m biased towards Family Mart because they’re all over Makuhario-Hongo (where I live), but you can honestly get a host of delicious cuisine in any one of them. If you’re looking for a cheap, fast, and good meal, a konbini is the place to go.

Vending machines are another important aspect of Japanese convenience culture that have their American counterparts beat tenfold. If you are particularly adventurous, you can get crepes and other wild food items out of a vending machine, but your more standard ones supply an array of green teas and coffees. The drinks are cheap, easily accessible and delicious. If you’re looking for soda, there’s a good chance you’ll have to go to Coca-Cola and other brand name specific vending machines as soda is not widely sold or consumed in Japan (although it’s not hard to find if you’re really craving a coke). The hype over Japanese vending machines is really not overblown because they are such a cheap and easy way to stay hydrated. It is important to note that there are not many trashcans that line the streets of Tokyo (I’m told because of terrorist scares), so you may have to carry your trash with you or try finding a most likely overflowing public one somewhere near a train station or mall.

Moving on from food, I thought I’d focus a bit more on Japanese society this week and delve in to some of my observations and impressions. I absolutely love Japanese fashion as it can be particularly elegant and break gender-related stereotypes that exist in the US. Many women dress extremely nice when they go out and are often in heals, skirts/dresses, blouses and blazers. I think this is partially due to the the fact that there’s a culture in Japan centered around one’s public versus private appearance. People are expected to look nice and act their best when they are in public, and often hide their truest impressions and thoughts if they could be considered impolite. Home is supposed to be the place where you can show your true colors and express your truest intentions and thoughts so to speak, so it’s supposed to be a place more for close friends and family. However, I also think it is partially because women are judged so strictly in Japanese culture. There is definitely an image of the ideal woman in Japanese society that often centers around women being elegant, gentle, pretty, and good homemakers. There is also such an emphasis on having children in Japan as the population is rapidly declining, that a women who is 30 and unmarried is often not viewed in good social standing.

Male fashion is extremely unique here too. Bracelets, necklaces, and handbags are for men as much as they are for women in Japan. There is also a huge emphasis on skin care for both genders, so in many ways the culture breaks many gender stereotypes in fashion that are in the US. It’s nice to be in a society that doesn’t have nearly (or at least the same) fashion centered gender stereotypes as the US does. It allows for a lot of unique self-expression in the form of clothing and accessories that you wouldn’t see in the US.

There’s also a large emphasis on Kawaii-culture and (what I especially love) youth counter-culture. Kawaii (cute) culture is mainly centered around teenage girls who will often wear Mary-Jane type shoes, long frilly socks that will go over the ankle or to the knee, pastel colored skirts, blouses, and dresses, and pigtails or some other hairstyle often associated with younger girls. While it’s not a fashion style I would personally wear, it’s a lot of fun to explore kawaii culture shops and see what outfits Japanese youths put together. Counter-culture fashion is definitely centered more around being edgy than being cute. It is more for both girls and boys than kawaii culture and often features dark, baggy clothing, dark (and often lots of) makeup for women, and many types of stand-out bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. In many ways, it goes against the public versus private appearance culture and displays a general unhappiness of the sometimes conservative nature of Japanese culture/society. However, as with quite a bit of Japanese fashion, even youth counter culture fashion is conservative in the fact that it doesn’t emphasize things like crop-tops, short shorts, and showing a lot of skin that are a part of youth fashion trends in the US. In fact, youth counter culture enthusiasts are often more covered due to their layers of baggy clothing. I love Japanese youth counter culture style because it is in some ways a silent but extremely visible way for young people to express their opinions on the direction of Japanese society.

Overall, I really appreciate the emphasis on politeness in Japanese society, and I can always appreciate going out and looking your best (no matter the fashion style). Sometimes having people go out of their way not to inconvenience or be rude to you, and you doing the same for others, can be nice. I do feel that I’m not quite my most American self here though (but not in the stereotypical annoying American sort of way). I try to match the way I dress to clothing trends here, and I make an effort to blend in to my surroundings much more than I do in the US (although I still stick out like a sore thump with my pale skin and blonde hair). It’s difficult to explain quite what I mean, but I almost feel like a less animated version of myself in order to fit more in with my surroundings. I don’t mean that this is a particularly bad thing or that I am a particularly extroverted person whose personality is being stifled, but it has allowed me to learn more about my identity as an American which has definitely been pretty neat. It’s always easy to judge a society as an outsider though, so I’d love to get the chance to talk to Japanese youths about their impressions and feelings of their culture and society.

Famous Ultra Fluffy Japanese Style Pancakes in Shibuya

Once again, before I sign off for the night I need to give an update on the new places I’ve been. This week was Ginza, Odaiba, and Shibuya for new places, and Maach Ecute for a new location in a spot I’ve already visited. Ginza is an extremely ritzy and expensive part of Tokyo that features stores of every designer brand imaginable, two Michelin Star restaurants, and the wealthiest adorned in beautiful yukata and other Japanese traditional styles clothing. Ian and I stopped in after work on Friday and visited a local art store, hand-crafted chop stick store, a tempura restaurant for dinner, and a cafe for an after meal coffee. We also got to watch this street artist spray paint something promotional for Louis Vuitton. He was apparently pretty famous because there were body guards, paparazzi and a crowd of people crowded around watching him. He wasn’t Japanese, but apparently still very popular in Japan. Odaiba is also centered around shopping, but more of mall-style shopping. There is also beach culture related things to do as there is an artificial “ocean” built there complete with a board walk type area and a mini Statute of Liberty. When Ian and I got to Shibuya we, of course, had to go across the scramble which is (what Ian tells me) the largest cross-walk in the world. We had to stop at the legendary Starbucks that overlooks the crosswalk for what has probably been the most American-style beverage I’ve consumed in Japan. The Starbucks was also a part of a CD shop that featured American music, K-pop, and J-pop. I love some of the Japanese bands the shop featured, but I was a little embarrassed to buy Japanese music when I can only speak textbook, basic Japanese. I definitely do regret not getting anything though and may go back because it’s so hard to get Japanese music in America. We proceeded on to Shibuya 109 and Magnet which are two very popular indoor outlet mall type places that feature a variety of mostly clothing stores. Ian and I both spent a bit too much money on some clothing. Maach Ecute was an earlier adventure in the week when we got out of work early on Wednesday. It’s a little mall close to Akihabara station that is inside an abandoned train station. There is a bar, restaurant, clothing store, gin store, and hodgepodge type store inside the mall. I wasn’t blown away with any of the shopping available, but it definitely is a unique and cute spot to stop in Akihabara if Anime and electronics aren’t your thing. Overall, it was a fun and very shopping heavy weekend.

Week Three

Baseball Game in Chiba

I can’t believe another week has already passed by which means it’s also time for another post! My week wasn’t too out of the ordinary, but I did want to take the time to reflect upon all of the interesting people I’ve met since coming to Tokyo. Although the majority of people who volunteer with Second Harvest are Japanese, I’ve met some very interesting foreign volunteers as well. This past Saturday Ian and I had the pleasure of working with a Pakistani man who had come to Tokyo 24 years before with his father who was a diplomat. We also met a drifting British journalist who had been working in the Philippines for a year, was now working in Japan, and then planned to go to China and work there after his time in Japan was up. All the stories of people who have come to Tokyo to live and work are always interesting and a little inspiring. So many of the people we’ve gotten to know have left the familiarity of their countries to learn the language and culture of the Japanese people. I’ve gotten the impression that there is an incredibly deep respect for the Japanese people and way of life among foreigners who have come to live in Japan. Some have even said that they volunteer at Second Harvest as a way to give back to the communities they have become a part of.

Entrance to Tokyo Disney Sea

While I’m not living in Japan permanently, nor do I have any plans to do so in the near future, I’d say learning at least some Japanese and reading up on the social rules of Japanese society are two important things to do whether you plan to visit or live in Japan for any period of time. While these two things seem obvious, it can be isolating if you do not understand any part of your surroundings. Additionally, outside of the major tourist areas English is not as widely spoken/known. Having some Japanese under your belt can be fun as well. Speaking a little Japanese to a food recipient at Second Harvests’s Saitama location one day, the man I was helping switched over to English and revealed he had learned the language by watching old Hollywood blockbusters. We discussed Japanese society a bit and he recommended interesting places for me to visit in the Tokyo area. I think he enjoyed having someone to practice his English speaking with and share ideas on his country. I never expected to meet someone who had learned English through movies, and it gave me a little inspiration for working on my Japanese language skills as well.

While there isn’t too much for me to report on about the previous week, I have to give my weekly update on the things I did and places I went during my weekend. Ian and I got free tickets to a baseball game in Chiba, which was a lot of fun. I think I can safely say baseball has become more popular in Japan than it is in America. The fans have their own dances, cheers, and songs to root for their favorite teams, and the players themselves have their own theme songs that play when they’re going up to bat. Fans are very respectful to one another as well. It was almost like they were taking turn cheering on their teams when they were batting, and respectfully let the other side cheer on their team when it was their turn. If you have the time, going to a baseball game during a trip to Japan is definitely worth it. We also couldn’t resist the opportunity to go to Tokyo Disneyland. As Ian’s host mom has a daughter who works for Disney in Japan, we were able to get discounted tickets and go for the day. We chose to go to Disney Sea because it only exists in Japan and made the trip a bit more unique than the traditional Disney experience. We spent 12 hours pretty much covering every inch of the park. It was definitely a lot of fun, but I’d say if you only have a limited amount of time in Japan, pick something more country/culture specific to do with your day. It’s pretty amazing to see how popular Disney has become in Japan though. The love of Disney here can rival the U.S. at times!

Well, that’s about all I have to report on for the previous week. Some parting (if not a bit cliche) words of wisdom I have to share before I sign off would be to take the opportunity to talk with and get to know the people who live in the places you visit. It’s honestly amazing how similar people can be despite cultural and language differences. While this can make it easy to talk with and relate to people, it’s also amazing to learn about and appreciate other people’s unique culture and way of life.

A Little More on Second Harvest and a Few More Tokyo Adventures

Hello! As I have mostly focused on my adventures around Tokyo for my last few posts, I’ve decided to delve in to a little more detail about my internship this time. I work with Second Harvest Tokyo in pretty much any capacity that I’m needed. Most days I work in the Pantry in Akihabara where food is sorted and distributed either to people who come to pick up monthly allotments, or into boxes that are trucked out to needy families around Tokyo. I spend my last few hours on Thursdays and Fridays in Second Harvest’s Kids Cafe, which is a space that is a little difficult to explain about. The Kids Cafe is for working parents to come with or drop off their kids for socialization, relaxation, and a chance for the little ones to learn more about the importance of the food they eat and how to cook basic meals. We get kids of varying ages from young babies to elementary school students. I’ve also been able to do a little research for second harvest on other food banks around the world, and help obtain the funding Second Harvest gets from tourists who donate their train cards that still have funds on them.

The Pantry is an interesting place to work both because I get to meet other volunteers from the area and see first-hand those who are food insecure in Tokyo. Many of the regular volunteers are Japanese women, though we do have a few foreign students who volunteer as a way to practice their Japanese, conduct research, and give back to the community. Sometimes the language barrier can be a bit difficult, but it is interesting to meet all of the characters that pass through Second Harvest. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are many foreigners that come to pick up food on distribution days. Some are a part of the small refugee population that resides in Japan, while others have come to work but are unable to afford the cost of living in Tokyo. According to the Second Harvest volunteer coordinator, about one third of the people that come for food pick-up are not Japanese. Those that are Japanese who come in are largely middle-aged to elderly.

To be honest, I find the large number of foreigners coming for food assistance to be surprising. There is a certain culture of almost silent suffering in Japan in which people do not like to ask for assistance, burden others, or feel indebted to others on some level. Because of this, I think it has been hard for Second Harvest to establish itself in Japan among the Japanese. I’ve even had locals with great English comprehension come up to me and ask about my experiences in Japan only to be completely baffled by the concept of a food bank. What’s especially interesting about my Pantry workdays is that they don’t even service the neediest of the food insecure in Japan. In order to qualify for food pickup in Akihabara, one must have an address and obtain authorization from their local government stating they are food insecure. These qualifications completely exclude the homeless, who are often times elderly, unable to work, and prone to mental illness because of their dire situation. While there is food delivery in Ueno Park every Saturday to get food to the homeless, this only reaches a small number of people.

I’ve really enjoyed my time with Second Harvest so far, and the work the organizations does is truly amazing. I think I’ve found it most surprising that the organizations doesn’t distribute food to the homeless in the amounts I thought they would. Going in to my internship, I figured the homeless would be Second Harvest’s largest clientele; however, they are actually the smallest group of people the organization serves. This is something I have found most saddening as many of the homeless cannot work either because of their physical condition, or the fact that they do not have an address to declare on a resume. It is not customary for the homeless to beg for money, or for people to provide money to them, so in the end the homeless are a significant population who are not very well helped. Through my research on the food security of Tokyo, I’ve seen many scholarly articles referencing the deteriorating mental conditions of Japan’s homeless because of their difficult situation. The difficulty in providing for and helping the homeless, even for an organization like Second Harvest, is something I’ve found to be the saddest part of the difficulties of being food insecure in Tokyo.

On a happier note, I do have some more Tokyo adventures to talk about before I sign off for the night. I was able to go to Asakusa after work on Saturday, a local shrine with my host mom and little host sisters for a Shinto health ceremony on Sunday, and Yoyogi Park and Harajuku on Monday. Asakusa’s most popular destination is probably Asakusa Shrine built during the Edo period and (according to a quick Google search) opened in 1649. The shrine is absolutely breathtaking. The gates to enter tower over all the shrine’s visitors, and then there are rows of shops, restaurants, and street vendors that branch off and lead up to the main building. The shrine is a very international setting with people who come from all over the world to view it. Despite this, there were still people in traditional yukata and kimono coming to pray.

The gate of Asakusa Shrine

The local shrine I went to with my host family was much smaller, but still beautiful as well. While we were there, a Shinto ceremony was taking place that was meant to cleanse the soul and ensure good health through the summer. After the ceremony, my host mom bought my little host sisters and me a Japanese sweet called kuzumochi.

Kuzumochi

My adventure to Yoyogi Park and Harajuku was also a lot of fun, and two places I highly recommend for any coming to tour the Tokyo area. Yoyogi Park is huge and beautiful with many types of plants, flowers, fountains, and walking paths to explore. Some areas of the park are like being submerged in a forest that grows in the middle of the city. The park also contains Meiji shrine, which is another beautiful Shinto shrine said to house the soul of Emperor Meiji. I stopped by Harajuku briefly after my day in Yoyogi Park for ramen and another visit to a hedgehog cafe. Harajuku is another international setting as it is a major tourist hub and also a major hub for unique fashion trends among the Tokyo youth, and perhaps a bit more refined fashion trends for older shoppers. It was a lot of fun just to people watch as some unique characters are drawn to the area. There is also tons to do in terms of shopping, visiting animal cafes, and finding great eateries.

For those that are looking for great places to put on or check off their Tokyo bucket lists, I would definitely recommend Asakusa, Yoyogi Park, and Harajuku!

There’s No Place Quite Like Akihabara…

Akihabara

I have officially made it through the first few days of my internship! I’ve also managed to get around the Tokyo metropolitan area without getting terribly lost (though I’ve come close a few times). Google Maps has honestly been a lifesaver. It’s great to use for train stations/times and in general walking around without getting completely lost. I would highly recommend downloading the app before any travel experience if you are like me and for some reason had never used it before.

I work Tuesday-Fridays in Akihabara, which for any manga and anime enthusiast is heaven on earth. I can safely say there is no other place on earth quite like Akihabara, and my friend describes it as a comic con in city form. It truly is quite an experience being in Akihabara. Even if you’re not a manga and anime fan, there are a vast amount of electronics retailers that make the Apple stores in the U.S. pale in comparison. Ian and I went into Yodobashi–a six floor electronics store–on our second day of work. The first five minutes were a truly terrifying experience. Every area has multiple employees lined up yelling out to people about the products they are selling. It was a little overwhelming being in a store filled to the sky with every kind of brand and electronic device imaginable, especially with sales people enthusiastically yelling at you in another language, but it got quieter the more floors we went up and was actually quite interesting.

I returned to Akihabara on Sunday to do more touristy things with my friend Rachel who is teaching English at Technos College. We went to a hedgehog/owl cafe where you can pay 1,500 yen (about $14) for unlimited drinks and half an hour holding little hedgehogs and petting the owls. Our hedgehogs were tired little guys, so we mostly chatted and watched them curl into little balls and nap. Naturally, our little hedgehog buddies and the owl (who was very suspicious of us) had to get names, so we ended up with Consuego and George the hedgehogs, and Bob the owl. After that, we went into a few manga/anime shops which were a little overwhelming and a little sketchy in their content at times. We ventured next to one of my favorite places thus far–Shimō-Kitazawa. It is a less tourist filled spot that is lined with local bars, cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. It’s a great place to shop and eat and has a very youthful vibe to it.

Shimō-Kitazawa

Working with a food bank has been an interesting experience thus far. Ian and I have mostly worked in the pantry and Kids Cafe where we have been sorting and handing out food, and playing games with and helping kids prepare meals. When we are working in the pantry, we mostly sort food that is either going to be delivered to families or available for people to pick up. Much of our time has been spent preparing for and helping people who come to pick up food. This part of our day it quite interesting as many of the people who come are not actually Japanese, but refugees who are currently living in Japan. We get a few interesting characters who come in, such as a French gentleman who claimed to have fled France’s ongoing civil war. The Kids Cafe is a place for children to come and play games and have snacks after school. It emphasizes social interaction and teaching kids how to be self-sufficient in terms of making meals. Despite the language barrier, Ian and I were still able to play a board game with two little girls and a British volunteer teaching English in the city.

On Saturdays we go all the way out to Saitama, which takes about one hour and forty minutes for me from my homestay. Despite the time it takes to get there, the trip is actually very easy because I only need to switch trains once. This is where the warehouse is located, and our work is very similar to the pantry in Akihabara. Ian and I helped to sort food and load boxes that were meant to be delivered to the other Second Harvest sites. There was another pick-up session for families, with mostly Japanese people coming to get food for their families this time. In order to qualify to get food from Second Harvest, an address and documentation from the local government displaying a need for food assistance is required. To reach needy people who cannot meet these requirements, Second Harvest provides food handouts in Ueno park on Saturdays. I found the differences between Akihabara and Saitama in people coming for food to be quite interesting. A much larger foreign population comes to Akihabara, while in Saitama it is much more local.

Overall, I am really liking working with Second Harvest! It’s very interesting to see how Japan’s first established food bank operates. I have also enjoyed exploring around the Tokyo area in both the touristy and more out-of-the-way places. I am excited to continue with my internship and experience more of the Japanese work culture, and to keep exploring around as much as possible.

The First Few Days

Hello! This is officially the first post of my Japanese travel blog following my adventures (and misadventures) in Japan. Although I want to focus on my internship with Second Harvest Tokyo and the food security project I am developing from my internship experiences, I also want to focus on the experiences I am having. This first post is dedicated largely to that and is a little long as it follows my first three days in Japan.

I started my journey in Japan by falling asleep at random times and thinking it was a good idea to get up at 4:30 in the morning. It’s really not, even if I went to bed at 5:30 pm the previous day. Technically I didn’t go to bed, it was more like I crashed out on my futon after I assured myself that a one hour nap with no alarm set was a good idea. It’s really not, even though I assured myself I could get up. I’m not sure if staying in bed or chugging a large coffee and struggling through until I could go to bed at a more reasonable hour would have been better, but my first evening in Japan passed rather unremarkably with me sprawled out in the clothes I had been wearing for over 24 hours. Yikes!

My next day was a bit more exciting as it was the day that I went through my program orientation and got to meet my host family. I started off (at 4:30 am) by leisurely getting ready for the day and assuring myself that I was confident and independent (insert stressed emoji), and that I could go exploring with no destination in mind. Not to say that having no particular destination when you’re exploring is bad, but Google maps is a handy tool made for the directionless (haha). I began to aimlessly wander at about 7 am and managed to end up almost getting run over in the bike lane. When I returned to the hotel for breakfast, there were two important things that I forgot about Japan: (1) trays to put your food on is a custom; (2) getting into and following the RIGHT lines is a social expectation. I gracefully managed to mess both up.

At around 10 am the other two interns (Jacob and Ian) and I met with Ishikawa-San–an IES program coordinator. She took us to the main building where Yurina-San took over most of our orientation. A recent Kanda University graduate with a great sense of style, Yurina-San introduced us to the area, gave us a tour of Kanda, and went out for sushi on a conveyor belt with us (I’m pretty sure this type of restaurant has a much more formal name than “sushi on a conveyor belt”, but I can’t remember it). Honestly, the orientation made me feel much more assured as I was feeling a bit lost before. I met with my host mom and her two daughters Chi-Chan (seven years old) and Kanae-Chan (four years old) where I came to the conclusion that my Japanese was weak despite taking three semesters of the language (even kanae-Chan had me beat by a lot).

I had dinner with the family, took a traditional Japanese style bath, and went to bed early, but at a more reasonable time than the night prior. I still managed to wake up at 3 am though. My host family is extremely kind; I just wish I could speak in Japanese a bit more. It took a little while for Chi-Chan and Kanae-Chan to realize I didn’t speak much Japanese. That happened when they looked at me eagerly after asking a question and it turned into a staring match. Truth be told, I didn’t even realize it was a question because the question marking particle “ka” was left off (often done when casual/short form speaking is used).

My host dad took the day off from work the following day to show me to the train station and around Chiba. We ended up meeting Ian and going to an outlet mall and Kissaten. My host dad had to leave to complete some work related things, and Ian and I had our own separate adventure that ended in me having one of the largest sun burns I’ve had in half a decade. We left the outlet mall and ventured to Mihama park which featured many varieties of trees, flowers, and a beautiful pond. We ended up at the beach next which was quite a different experience than I’ve had in the US. The tourist culture that surrounds beaches with the board walks and tons of seafood restaurants was nonexistent. I’m not sure if this was because of cultural differences or because Chiba is less of a tourist destination, but the beach ended up being very quiet (which could be attributed to the fact that it was a Wednesday as well).

During our beach adventure, we saw a number of dead jelly fish floating around on the beach, and a hermit crab which may or may not have been saved from our help returning it to the sea. One of my favorite parts was the jumping fish. I’m not sure what type of fish they were, but there were these long skinny fish that kept jumping out of the sea. They had so much gusto that it was amusing watching them fly through the air. Unfortunately, spending hours outside in the sun, wearing a dress, and having no sunscreen does not bode well for the pale. I ended up with a sunburn across my face, my shoulders and neck, hands, feet, ears… Basically, and because I have unilaterally decided not to provide a picture, I looked like a burnt lobster bandit (the burn on my face went down from my forehead to a little past my eyes making it appear as though I was wearing a rather unfortunate looking mask). I think my host sisters and host dad found it slightly amusing (I’m sure I will eventually).