Friday, 11 January 2008

Dating in Japan

Meeting members of the opposite sex in Japan is usually not a complicated
process, as more often than not the nature of the job, whether it be a
businessman or English instructor, will bring you into contact with Japanese
in the workplace who would like to get to know you better outside of the
office or school. English instructors in particular have an advantage in
regard to being able meet Japanese, as many students will let you know
indirectly if they are interested in establishing a relationship beyond the
classroom, and depending on the school's policy toward dating students it's
quite easy to meet at a later date for dinner or a drink. For those who don't
want to mix business with romance, one of the best alternatives to meeting
Japanese are the many salsa schools that have recently become popular in
Japan. Women in these classes usually out number the men, and the lively
atmosphere makes it relatively easy to meet someone looking for a dance
partner. Yoga classes are also gaining popularity in Japan for both men and
women, and are another possibility for meeting people who share the same

For those looking for a more mainstream approach, the large number of
gaijin bars that are frequented by both Japanese women and men hoping to meet
foreigners are one of the most popular choices, but keep in mind there are
usually more foreigners than Japanese present, and the competition can often
be fierce. Another method of bringing Japanese and foreigners together are
“International Parties” that are often advertised in magazines and newspapers.
For a set fee of approximately 5,000 yen you're able to attend a prearranged
party in a restaurant or lounge where you have an opportunity to mingle with
others interested in cultural exchange. In a similar venue are international
hiking clubs that are now a popular form of meeting people, as most day hikes
in the countryside are arranged with an equal number of men and women in mind.
Sport clubs still appeal to many people who hope to meet others between
workout sets, and the recent influx of Starbucks coffee shops in Japan are
usually packed with Japanese women and men who are alone and receptive to

It's difficult to discuss cross cultural differences without making
generalizations that may or may not be accurate as each case is different, but
for the most part Japanese are usually approachable in a social setting even
if they appear to be a bit shy or reticent at first meeting. Foreigners who
speak Japanese well are obviously going to have an advantage over those whose
language skills are limited, and many relationships in Japan fall to the
wayside eventually because of this lack of communication. Though mutual
attraction is sometimes enough to keep a couple together, those looking long
term usually have a better chance of success if one or both partners can speak
the other's native language well. As is the case in most Asian countries, age
difference between men and women in Japan is not looked upon as an issue, and
you often see couples together whose presence would no doubt turn heads in
other parts of the world.

The Japanese view of sex is also quite different from that of the west, and
they usually approach it with a more relaxed attitude, as can be witnessed by
the large number of “Love Hotels” found in all major cities of Japan which
provide a temporary haven for couples in need of privacy. This cavalier
attitude can also sometimes be confusing for foreigners, who after becoming
infatuated after the first or second date will suddenly find their email and
phone messages going unanswered. Though definitely not pleasant for the ego,
once it's understood the Japanese are uncomfortable with direct confrontation
and this is their way of letting you and themselves off the hook, it's usually
a bit easier to comprehend and accept. This approach often pertains to long
term relationships as well, and there have been many foreigners who after
years of being in a relationship suddenly found themselves in the cold for no
apparent reason and with no explanation forthcoming. Society's view of
international relationships in Japan seems to be that of resigned acceptance,
but don't be surprised if there is resistance on the part of many Japanese
parents in regard to their son or daughter marrying a foreigner. Although this
attitude has gradually begun to change over the years, most traditional
Japanese still want their children to marry Japanese.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Roppongi: Tokyo's Premier Night Spot

If you're looking for a night out on the town the famous entertainment hub of
Tokyo known as Roppongi is a must see. Though the origin of the name is
unknown, the word Roppongi literally means “six trees”, and legend has it the
term derives from six warlords that resided in the region during the Edo
period. The inception of Roppongi as a nexus of nightlife in Tokyo originated
in 1890 when the Imperial Japanese Army took up residence there. With the
devastating effect of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 taking it's toll, the
area was temporarily destroyed, rebuilt, and leveled again by American bombs
during World War Two. With the emergence of several military bases in the
district during the occupation by American forces, the locale soon teemed with
western oriented shops, restaurants, and hostess bars that catered to soldiers
hungry for entertainment and female companionship. The late1960's saw Roppongi
becoming popular with Japanese and foreigners alike when disco first made its
appearance, the area attracting many of Tokyo's famous entertainers and movie
stars. Several embassies and foreign corporate offices located there also
contributed to the international feel that prevails today.

Any given night in Roppongi still finds a high concentration of military
and assorted foreigners intermingling with Japanese businessmen and attractive
young women of various nationalities swaying provocatively down the street as
they make their way to strip clubs and hostess bars that line the boulevards.
The sidewalks resonate with the cadence of club hawker's voices and alluring
come-ons of scantily dressed women beckoning seductively from doorways leading
to the plethora of parlors that offer “massage” and additional carnal
pleasures. As you traverse the maze of gleaming neon you find yourself
enmeshed in an aura of sexual anticipation that lingers enticingly in the air.
Small groups of buff young men or magazine cover perfect couples strolling arm
in arm scurry by to destinations that offer the hippest scenes in Tokyo.
Inside the most fashionable “gaijin” bars patrons eagerly pack into a space
the size of a large elevator, the smoke of a multitude of cigarettes forming a
spectral haze that permeates the room. Music blares from strategically placed
speakers as men and women pose with studied casualness, their eyes scanning
the crowd for the promise of that special someone to share a drink with, or
possibly more.

If you're seeking a more traditional approach to whiling away an afternoon
or evening, the recent addition of “Roppongi Hills” shopping and entertainment
development is sure to provide what you desire. Opening with much fanfare in
Roppongi in 2003, this mega-complex located on a 27 acre site incorporates
restaurants, shops, movie theaters, cafes, a museum, a major TV studio, an
outdoor amphitheater, hotels, and an assortment of parks, all of which are
centered around the 53 story Mori Tower.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The Cost of Living in Japan


Japan, and especially it's capital city of Tokyo, have been
notoriously famous throughout the years as being among the world's most
expensive places to live. Those who have experienced a ten dollar cup of coffee
in the Ginza, or noticed the stylishly packaged melons for sale at airport
tourist shops for 10,000 yen will attest to this fact. Yet the truth of the
matter is you don't have to spend a fortune to enjoy a comfortable and enjoyable
life style in Japan. One of the major considerations in regard to avoiding the
potentially high cost of living is deciding where to reside. As rent will
consume as much as thirty percent of your income, choosing a suitable area to
live becomes a number one priority when trying to hold on to your yen.

The first rule of thumb when looking for affordable accommodation is to stay
clear of the central areas of the major cities, where even small apartments can
be very expensive. Housing costs however are significantly lower in the suburbs
or outlined areas, and despite the additional time spent riding trains if you
need to enter the city on a daily basis, you will still come out ahead
financially in the long run. Commuting costs are usually compensated by the
money saved on rent, and most Japanese companies pay a portion if not all of
their employees travel expense by providing a monthly allotment. Train passes
purchased at a discounted set rate which feature unlimited travel between home
and office are also available for commuters. Those wishing to avoid riding
trains altogether also have the option of driving to work, but the cost of
parking and maintenance in the form of insurance and various taxes is expensive,
not to mention coping with the crowded conditions of most Japanese roads and
streets during peak hours. One possible compromise is that of riding a small 50-CC
scooter, which are economical and mobile enough to negotiate the narrow lanes
that constitute most Japanese cities. Another potential money saver in regard to
finding suitable lodging is to take advantage of the recent increase of real
estate agents geared toward working with foreigners. Many of these companies
offer apartments that don't require the large output of cash in the form of
deposits and agent commission fees that are often necessary when obtaining
housing through more conventional sources.

Possibly the second biggest expenditure in terms of day to day living in Japan
is that of food. The overall cost can be reduced substantially if you cook meals
at home using traditional Japanese items such as seafood, seasonal fruit and
vegetables, soya bean products, and rice. One of the best times to do your
weekly shopping is shortly before closing times in the evening, when
supermarkets offer perishable products that have yet to be sold at big
discounts. Inexpensive restaurants offering dishes such as ramen noodles, curry
rice, grilled chicken yakitori, and kaiten sushi, at prices ranging between 500
to 1,000 yen are also numerous, and can be found around and inside major train
stations. Many restaurants also provide set menus (teishoku) at lunch time for
1,000 yen, and box lunches known as bento sold in convenience stores, kiosks,
and department stores, are also an excellent bargain.

Other expenses incurred such as electricity, gas, and water are relatively
expensive in Japan, but are basically on par with rates of similar services
provided in Europe or the U.S. Telephone fees under NTT, Japan's number one
telecommunications company have been routinely high for decades, but with the
emergence of more sophisticated and economical mobile phone service now
available prices are beginning to come down. For international calls, callback
services and free calls transmitted via computer through companies such as Skype
are making the prospect of calling long distance a more affordable one. Japan's
broadband Internet service is also among the least expensive in the world, with
service available from around 2,500 yen a month.

Clothing in Japan can also be purchased quite inexpensively surprisingly enough.
Supermarket chains such as “ Ito Yokado” or discount clothing stores like
“Uniqlo” offer quality clothing at very reasonable prices. Used clothing stores
are also becoming in vogue, with shops such as “Thank You Mart” offering a set
price of 390 yen for all items sold. And if you're in need of a haircut don't be
discouraged by the high prices that most Japanese hair dressers are currently
charging. There are still many shops that offer haircuts for around 1,000 yen.
New arrivals who also wish to furnish their apartment with household items
without breaking the bank will want to check out the “100 Yen Shops” that offer
a huge selection of items, from kitchen goods to clothing, all at the set price
of 100 yen.


Sports in Japan

Watching and participating in various sports are popular
activities in Japan enjoyed by people of all ages and walks of life. The origin
of sports in Japan dates back to the twelfth century, when military nobility
known as samurai introduced events such as kendo, (Japanese stick fencing) kyudo,
(archery) and jujustu, ( judo) to the populous. These athletic games were
eventually established as martial arts in the Edo period (1600-1868), with the
focus on mastering the mental aspects of each activity in hopes of elevating the
participant to a nobler, more transcendent level. These sports have been passed
down from generation to generation, and still continue to flourish today. Sumo,
which also maintains a long history as a traditional martial art, originated
approximately 2,000 years ago from a ceremonial dance used to entertain the
Shinto gods, and is considered Japan's national sport. Even today the event
includes ritualistic elements derived from the Shinto religion, such as tossing
salt to the ground at the start of each match as a means of symbolic
purification. The rules of sumo are quite basic. Two wrestlers called rikishi
face off in a circular ring called a dohyo, and the wrestler who first touches
the floor with any body part other than the soles of his feet, or is pushed out
of the ring by his opponent loses. The fight itself is usually over within
seconds, but on rare occasions can last up to a minute or longer. Six
tournaments are held throughout the year, each one lasting 15 days.

Western sports were eventually introduced to Japan with the arrival of the Meiji
Restoration, including baseball in 1872. Baseball has since evolved into one of
the country's most popular spectator sports, with thousands of enthusiastic fans
attending professional games held each season in stadiums found in all major
cities throughout the country. Games are also broadcast live on television
several times a week, featuring teams from both leagues, (the Central and
Pacific), which consist of six teams each. The last few years has also seen a
rise in the number of Japanese players who are currently playing successfully in
the American Major Leagues, and whose games are covered extensively through the
media in Japan. University and high school teams are also numerous, and the All
Japan High School Baseball Championship held each summer and televised
nationwide is viewed by millions. Competing with baseball as the nations most
popular sport is soccer, which made it's debut in 1993 with the introduction of
J-League, a professional soccer league consisting of two divisions, J1 and J2.
Soccer had been played by amateurs for many years in Japan, but it's appeal
gained momentum after Japan's national soccer team participated in the world cup
in France for the first time in 1998.

Following closely behind soccer in regard to popularity in Japan is Golf. The
bubble economy boom of the 80's and the affluence which followed brought golf
quickly into the forefront as one of the most popular games in the country.
Enjoyed in the past by only a privileged few, it soon grew in favor among the
average "salary man", who used it as a means of extending his business network
by playing a round or two on Sunday with potential clients. Memberships in
prestigious clubs at the time were in such demand that they cost anywhere from
100 to 400 million yen, and were sought after by large companies who were hoping
to establish themselves in the ranks of those who were often closing more deals
on the golf course than in the conference room. Because of the increase in the
number of players and limited space available, the prospect of playing golf for
the average person in Japan is still an expensive one, the price averaging
between 20,000 yen and up for 18 holes, with caddy fees and lunch usually not
included. Another consideration when figuring the cost of playing golf in Japan
is that of "hole in one insurance". Those who are fortunate (or unfortunate
enough) to sink the elusive "hole in one" celebrate the event by paying for all
fellow member's fees that day, as well as bestowing expensive gifts on those
present. Consequently insurance was made available to purchase to cover the
residual expense for those skillful enough to make this difficult shot.

As well as enjoying golf, baseball, and soccer, the Japanese due to an increase
in free time available in recent years are now participating more than ever
before in an array of sport related activities including jogging, weight
training, long distant running, calisthenics, aerobics, jazz dancing, softball,
swimming, badminton, volleyball, cycling, tennis, table tennis, billiards, and
bowling. High risk sports such as scuba diving, hang gliding, and horseback
riding are also gaining popularity.


Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Japanese Karaoke

Pass any number of local clubs or bars on any given night in Japan, and you
will no doubt hear the off key refrain of people participating in one of the
countries all time favorite activities: karaoke. Although there are
conflicting reports on how this popular form of recreation came about, most
people agree that it most likely began in Kobe in the early 1970's, when a
popular singer by the name of Daisuke Inoue introduced the concept after being
asked frequently by guests to provide a recording of his performances they
could sing along with on company sponsored vacations. Realizing the potential,
Inoue developed a karaoke machine that played background music of his most
popular songs for the price of 100 yen. Originally regarded as a fad which
lacked the atmosphere of a live performance, Inoue leased his machines to
stores instead of selling them outright. As the form of entertainment
gradually became more popular, karaoke machines were eventually placed in
restaurants and hotel rooms. Unfortunately Inoue never bothered to patent his
invention, and lost his chance at becoming one of Japan's richest men when
Roberto del Rosario, a Filipino inventor, secured the patent in 1983 for his
sing along system referred to as Minus-One. The first karaoke machines on the
market used cassette tapes, which were later replaced with CD's, VCD's,
Laserdiscs, and currently DVDs.

The most well known venue for Karaoke in Japan to date are known as
“karaoke boxes”, small or medium sized sound proof rooms equipped with
microphones and a video karaoke machine which can be rented by the hour,
providing a more intimate atmosphere for a couple or group seeking privacy.
Rooms vary in size and style, with seats usually placed along the sides with a
table in the middle that can be used for placing food and drinks ordered by
phone to the staff located in the main reception area. The massive songbook
provided for each room offers a wide range of tunes, the majority of them in
Japanese. There are also many British and American songs available as well
including the Beatles, which are always a favorite among the Japanese. Singing within
the group can sometimes take on a competitive edge, with some karaoke machines
rating your performance based on how closely you resemble the original tune.
Another popular but more expensive alternative to the karaoke box is the
Karaoke Bar, which is often a favorite night spot for Japanese businessmen who drop
in after work with colleagues to have a drink and to enjoy singing songs to
the accompaniment of a karaoke machine.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Bicycle in Japan

One of the first things that foreigners arriving in Japan are often surprised
by are the vast number of bicycles that can be seen careening through the city
streets and sidewalks. Almost everyone, from grandmothers to well dressed
businessmen on their way to the office use a “jitensha” ( bicycle) as a form
of mainstream transportation. Whether employed for picking up the children
from preschool, pedaling to the nearest train station, or commuting to work or
university, the bicycle has become an integral part of Japanese society. Even
the police, who can often be seen making nightly rounds on bicycles, prefer
them in regard to navigating the narrow network of streets that comprise most
Japanese cities and towns. The two wheelers are indeed everywhere, and to such
an extent that huge parking areas near most shopping centers and railway
stations are dedicated solely to accommodating bicycles.  

Despite their convenience and appeal as a cheap form of transportation,
they are also a major annoyance and possible physical threat to those riders
and pedestrians who fail to learn the rules of the road. Those rules being: that
there are no rules of the road. In theory bicycles by law are to be ridden
only on city streets and not sidewalks, except when signs indicate otherwise.
In reality however this regulation is entirely ignored by everyone. More times
than I care to remember I've found myself jumping out of the way of some over
zealous cyclist who decided the path of least resistance would be to run
directly over me. Or felt the sudden swoosh of air touch my arm as a crazed
biker appearing out of nowhere like some invisible phantom in the night sped
manically by from behind as I leisurely sauntered home.  

In spite of these pitfalls the bicycle in Japan for better or worse is here
to stay, and as the saying goes, “if you can't beat em join em”. For those of
you who are considering purchasing one upon arriving you'll be pleased to know
they're quite inexpensive, the average cost running around 10,000 yen , and
used bicycles are available for even less. The most common bicycles for
everyday use are typically one speed models with steel frames which include a
kickstand, generator lights, fenders, caliper front brake and disk rear brake,
and a steel mesh basket which is attached to the handle bars for carrying
groceries and other items.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The Japanese Kimono

The word kimono literally translates to "something worn" and has been
considered the national attire of Japan since its inception in the fifth
century. The earliest kimono were influenced through extensive cultural
exchanges between China and Japan, when Chinese traders introduced traditional clothing
known as Hanfu, which were later modified throughout Japan's history resulting
in todays contemporary kimono. Kimono can best be described as a T- shaped,
straight lined robe with a collar and wide full length sleeves that falls to the
ankle, made from a single bolt of fabric known as a tan, which comes in
standard dimensions. The kimono consists of four main strips of cloth, two
panels forming the sleeves, two covering the body, and additional smaller
pieces that make up the narrow front panel and collar.

Kimono are traditionally sewn by hand, and their fabrics are also often
hand made and hand decorated using silk, silk brocade, silk crepes, and satin
weaves known as ninzu. The level of formality ranges from casual to extremely
formal, and in the case of women is determined by the pattern, fabric, and
color. Kimono worn by young women have longer sleeves and are more elaborate
than those of older women, while men's kimono are usually one basic shape worn
in subdued colors. Unmarried women traditionally have worn a style of kimono
known as furisode, which has floor length sleeves and is usually displayed on
special occasions. Kimono for women are typically similar in size, and are
adjusted to various body types by folding and tucking. A kimono that ends at
the wrist when the arms are lowered is considered an ideal fit.

The process of putting on a kimono is quite difficult and time consuming,
and often requires the help of an assistant. Kimono are wrapped around the
body in a precise manner from left to right, and are secured by a wide belt
known as an obi, which is tied at the back. Traditional footwear called geta
which is a thonged wooden platform shoe, and split stockings known as tabi are
always worn with the kimono. In recent times kimono are most often worn by
women and occasionally men at weddings, tea ceremonies, or other formal
occasions. Professional sumo wrestlers who are required to wear traditional
Japanese clothes whenever appearing in public can also be seen in kimono.
Special courses are available in Japan for enthusiasts interested in learning
the correct techniques for putting on kimono. Classes also cover how to match
kimono undergarments and accessories, choosing the appropriate pattern and
fabrics to the season or event, and selecting and tying the obi. Kimono are
often very expensive, with a complete outfit consisting of undergarments, obi,
ties, socks, sandals, and accessories easily exceeding $20,000.

Friday, 4 January 2008

The Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional ritual influenced by Zen Buddhism
in which green tea known as matcha is prepared and ceremoniously served by a
skilled practitioner to a small group of guests in a tranquil setting such as
a garden tea house. Chanoyu which means “hot water for tea” refers to a single
ceremony that involves only tea, while the longer version known as Chaji “tea
meeting” entails a full tea ceremony in which a light meal is also served, and
can last up to four hours. Mastering the art of the tea ceremony includes
years of study that can last a lifetime, as the student must be familiar with
several interrelated disciplines such as flower arranging, calligraphy,
ceramics, incense, and the proper technique for wearing kimono. Guests who
participate in the ritual must also be aware of the proper conduct in regard
to utilizing certain phrases and gestures required to maintain the integrity
of the ceremony.

If tea is to be served in a tea house guests will initially be shown to a
waiting room called a machiai, which is usually a separate structure such as a
simple gazebo. After being summoned by the host they purify themselves by
rinsing their mouths and hands with water from a small stone basin known as
tsukubai, and then continue through the garden to the tea house. Removing
their shoes they proceed through a small sliding door that is only thirty six
inches high, thus symbolizing that all who enter are equal in stature
irrespective of status or social position. The roomis not decorated save for a
scroll painting called kakemono, which has been selected by the host and
reveals the theme of the ceremony. The Buddhist scripture on the scroll is
called bokuseki (ink traces) and is admired by each guest in turn before being
seated seiza style on the tatami mat floor.

If a meal is not served the host will present each guest with small sweets
eaten from special paper known as kaishi, which each person carries in a
decorative wallet tucked in the breast of the kimono. All utensils to be used
in the ceremony such as tea bowl, tea scoop, and whisk, are ritualistically
cleansed in the presence of the guests in a precise manner and order before
being fastidiously arranged according to the ceremony being performed. Upon
completion of cleaning and preparing the utensils, the host will place a carefully
measured proportion of green tea powder in a bowl along with the appropriate
amount of hot water, and then whisk the tea using a precise set of movements.
Guests relax and enjoy the atmosphere of the simple surroundings and
conversation is kept to a minimum. The host then serves the bowl to the guest
of honor, bows are exchanged, and the bowl is raised to the host in a gesture
of respect. The bowl in then rotated by the guest to avoid drinking from it's
front, a sip is taken followed by a prescribed phrase, the bowl's rim is wiped
and rotated back to its original position, and is then passed on to the next
guest with a bow. The protocol is repeated until all guests have tasted the tea
from the same bowl, and it is then returned to the host who rinses it. The
scoop and tea container are then offered to the guests for examination, each
item being treated with extreme care and reverence as they may be
irreplaceable handmade antiques passed down for generations. The host then
collects the utensils, and as the guests leave the tea house bows as a sign
that the ceremony has officially come to an end.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Geisha: Flowers of the Willow World

Often referred to as the "flowers of the willow world", Geisha are an enduring
symbol of Japan whose inherent beauty, grace, charm, and artistic talent have
been admired for centuries. The word Geisha means artist in Japanese, and they
have been traditionally considered professional performers who entertain guests
through a series of time honored arts such as Japanese ancient dance, singing,
playing of various musical instruments, flower arrangement, tea ceremony , and

Historically Geisha began their training at a very young age, and although girls
were occasionally sold to geisha houses known as okiya, this was not common
practice in most reputable districts in Japan. When girls first arrived to the
okiya they were expected to survive the first stage of training known as shikomi,
which involved hard manual labor as maids who were subject to the beckoned call
of their seniors. The work was exceedingly difficult, and was intended to test
the strength, will, and integrity of the young novices. In addition to the
strenuous work, they would be expected to wait late into the night for the
experienced Geisha to return from engagements to assist them before retiring for
the evening. When not working in the okiya, the shikomi would attend classes to
study dancing, singing, and the playing of traditional musical instruments. Once
the student became proficient they would then be required to pass a final dance
exam before advancing to the second stage of training called minarai. This stage
of training relieved them from their housekeeping duties, and allowed them to focus
on applying what they had learned by attending banquets called ozashiki, in
which the guests present were attended to by Geisha. Soon thereafter they begin
the third, final, and most important stage of training known as Maiko. Maiko are
apprentices who study under established Geisha. The training involves
accompanying the mentor to her engagements and observing the proper etiquette of
the seasoned professional. This relationship is extremely important to the Maiko,
as it teaches her the proper way of serving tea, playing the shamisen, dancing,
and the art of casual conversation, all of which are essential to master to assure
future invitations to various tea houses and social gatherings.

Contemporary Geisha, though much fewer in numbers, still live collectively
during their apprenticeship in okiya in areas called hanamachi, and often begin
their training after completing junior high school, high school, or college.
Maiko still study instruments such as the shakuhachi and shamisen, and are well
versed in literature, poetry, tea ceremony, wearing kimono, and traditional
Japanese dance. The district of Gion Kobu in the city of Kyoto is now considered
the epicenter of contemporary Geisha. The life of a Geisha still resides in the
elegant cultured world known as karyukai, and they are often hired to attend
parties and gatherings at tea houses and traditional Japanese restaurants. The
time spent with guests is measured by burning an incense stick known as