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.

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