Tag Archive for 5 things

5 Things to do in #Kyoto

In Kyoto, you will see the most beautiful city scenes ever. Kyoto cannot be recommended enough! Whenever I do these “5 Things” lists, I always feel a little apprehensive because I wonder, “Can I think of five things, whilst avoiding the clichés?”. However, the problem with Kyoto is the boundary between highlight and cliché is not clear, but it doesn’t matter. Everything you see in Kyoto will be a highlight of your life! My advice: Don’t care, be shameless, use a selfie stick, enjoy Kyoto to the fullest. This list is spectacularly short compared to what Kyoto has to offer. I plan to do another “5 Things to do in Kyoto” list another… five or six times? We’ll see.


I don’t normally like buses, as I don’t really trust them. They appear and arrive out of nowhere, and then disappear into the traffic to nowhere; I don’t know where they will take me. Trains, on the other hand, have tracks and a clear map that show definitely where they’ve come from, and where they are going. You cannot get (very) lost with trains. However, Kyoto city buses are AWESOME! As soon as you arrive at Kyoto station look for the tourist information centre, buy a City Metro day pass and get a map in your language. The map is very clearly laid out, very simple to read, and you can quickly and easily see how to get to the places you want to go. Also, the buses are very clearly marked. The buses in Kyoto are the only buses in the world I trust. However, they can be slowed down when stuck in afternoon traffic. To use them, get on via the back door, and then at your destination insert your day pass through the machine as you get off through the front door. There are multilingual TV screens on most buses that announce what the next stop is, so you can’t go wrong. The auditory announcements can also help you learn the correct pronunciation of the place names.


 

1. Kinkakuji Pavilion

This is Japan’s premier tourist attraction. This is the number one must see for all Japanese and non-Japanese in Japan. You haven’t visited Japan until you’ve seen this. However, remember that it is just a humble building, gold leaf coated, rebuilt in the 1950’s. This site alone receives visitors in the millions annually. Consequently, arrive at or moments after 9am, and rush to get ahead of the school and tour groups, but be prepared to get swarmed anyway. You will probably have just five minutes to enjoy this scene before you get elbowed or bumped one too many times. Walking around the place is calming, even if the main viewing area isn’t. Fortunately the grounds staff and security are very, very well practiced in shepherding people, and so the first real sight you see is the Pavilion itself, and then you can relax and unwind in the twenty or thirty minute stroll through the rest of the grounds.


 

2. Rickshaw rides & Gion
Yes, you can have a hot sweaty man pull you about in a comfortable rickshaw. It’s actually a great way to meet a local who can give you an introduction to the area, and give you ideas and travel advice. Besides, how many times in your life can you get this opportunity? Try it at least once. Also, I have seen women rickshaw pullers in Tokyo, so may be there are some in Kyoto now. Most rickshaws can be found in Gion close to the Ginkakuji Pavilion (the “Silver” one).


Gion boundaries are not clear, nor traditionally defined. I guess the definition of “Gion” is the nighttime geisha/maiko area, and the temple and shrines that are super popular with tourists. So this area includes Ginkakuji, Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Kodaiji Shrine, and more.

3. Fushimi Inari

I’ve said before that “Tokyo is made of stairs” here. Fushimi Inari is also made of stairs. In fact, you will do a lot of walking in Kyoto. As if travelling and new experiences aren’t energy sapping enough, walking and stairs add to it. However, Fushimi Inari is grand. Take a picnic lunch, get there early, and slowly wander through the tree and orange-torii covered hill. This is a place where you can relax and recharge and forget about the stress of travel.


 

4. The food
To be honest, I find Japanese food salty and not to my liking; consequently, I don’t actually have any Kyoto-food photos to show. That said, there are a very many Westerners who absolutely love Japanese food. For them, Kyoto is a Mecca for Japanese culinary cuisine. How do I survive there? I look for the ramen shops, the “yakitori” (grilled meat on skewers) restaurants, and franchise places. The best places for anyone for dinner is definitely in Kyoto station on the upper floors, where you can browse and even find Korean and Chinese restaurants. For a truly unique experience, the “restaurant” below is near Kifune Temple, and the platforms are literally over the stream and surrounded by trees. It’s quiet and tranquil. The other place is near Gion by the river on the balconies that overlook the river.

The Gion restaurant district is desolate in the day time, except for the occasional delivery guy pushing a trolley about.


 

5. People watch in the HUGE Kyoto station
This is perhaps going to be the most grand train station you’ll ever experience. It has department stores, a few floors of restaurants (some with spectacular views), cafés, souvenir shops, and of course luggage lockers (claim yours before 9am before they’re all taken). The view in this photo below doesn’t even capture a quarter of this building, but you can get this wonderful view in the late afternoon early evening; and yes, that is Kyoto Tower reflected in the windows.

 

Bonus: Rent a kimono
Yes, both men and women can rent a kimono, or yukata (for the summer) for the morning or the day. Girls can even be dressed up like a maiko or geisha with the full makeup, hair styling, and garb. Prices start from about USD$50 and up to about USD$100. There are a bunch of places in Gion, and they offer English language support, which actually means, some minimal help. However, it’s actually very easy, so don’t worry about the language gap. This model below was nice enough to write up a story about her experience renting a kimono, thanks so much Mariko.


 

Update: Watch this space for “Another 5 Things to do in Kyoto”.


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5 things to do in Tokyo

Tokyo is an exciting city with many things happening all the time. If it’s your first time, I really recommend you stay at a hotel in Asakusa (Google Maps), so you’re close to the rickshaws, Sensoji temple, kabuki theaters, the vibrant restaurant districts that are typical of Japan (but these ones have English menus), and a casual walk to Tokyo Skytree Tower.


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1. See the Shibuya Crossing

It is said that in peak hours about a thousand people cross at each light change (every two to three minutes). I guess this is in the evening when people are coming from and going to work, and going to a night out with colleagues. This is the crossing that has featured as “Tokyo” in various movies including Resident Evil, and has it’s own Wikipedia entry (Wikipedia). You watch could watch this fascinating coordination of people scrambling from the Loccitane Cafe (pictured, the yellow place behind the tree), the Metro station, or Starbucks 2nd floor in the Tsutaya building (pictured, to the right), and you might be lucky enough to get a rarely opening window seat. You’d have to case out the place and figure out who is camped out for a few hours, and who are there just for the view. The ones who are there for the view will probably be bored after about half and hour and leave. Be ready to grab your tray and claim a spot quickly. Interestingly, “Tall” is the largest size this Starbucks serves.


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2. Visit Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple is in Asakusa near the Asakusa Metro station on the Ginza Line. It is perhaps the oldest or first religious site in Tokyo, and the most visited tourist attraction. Despite the ominous promise of crowds, it’s not that bad, and other tourists are nice and respectful.


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3. Rent a kimono

It is possible for men and women to rent a kimono for the morning, afternoon, or the day in Tokyo and Kyoto. The best place in Tokyo is probably in Asakusa, near Sensoji Temple. It’s a small area, and so you don’t have to walk far wearing it, and have all the great photo ops you can imagine. A model of mine has written about this experience before, see here for Mariko’s kimono story.


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4. Try the food

DON’T do McDonalds! Ramen is a cheap, classic, healthy, and hearty food. It’s quick and easy to order, and is a real friend to weary travelers at the end of a long day. Also see previous blog posts on food, including ramen and sushi blog posts.


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5. See the sumo

Sumo is held for middle two weeks, every second month. It also is held in different cities. The schedule is January-Tokyo, March-Osaka, May-Tokyo, July-Nagoya, September-Tokyo, November-Fukuoka. Tickets go on sale about two months before the tournament, and can sell out quick. It is possible to book tickets online in English. See previous blog posts for more info about sumo.


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Bonus: Rickshaw rides.

Rickshaw rides are best had near Sensoji Temple, Asakusa. The rickshaw pullers have some English language abilities, lots of energy, and will tell you about the neighbourhood they’ll take you through, with lots of unique photo ops you’ll never get back home. They can even give you some additional advice and perhaps discount offers for other unique Japanese things like tea ceremonies and more.


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I’ve only been to Tokyo once for two short days, and couldn’t even scratch the surface of this busy city. There’s lots more to see and experience, including maid cafés, kabuki, Japanese tea ceremonies (held at some hotels), restaurant pubs, the city view from the Mori Building, and lots more. My advice is spend at least a week there, and may be do a day trip to Mt Fuji. Finally, make plans to go back for more exploration.


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5 things about visiting a sushi restaurant

A chef working in a sushi restaurant in Japan

A chef working in a sushi restaurant in Japan

There’s some simple things that you to know about in a real Japanese sushi restaurant. There’s of course a lot more you can learn if visit with a sushi aficionado, but let your orientation to Sushi Restauranting 101 begin here.

1. When you first sit down. Step into the door and look for a young shop assistant who’ll ask how many people you’re dining with, and then he or she will direct you to a place to sit. Near your place is the hot water dispenser for your green tea. Usually at each section along the conveyor are tins with green tea powder. Just put one heaped spoon in your cup and add water. Place the cup against the large round button, and push. Of course refills are allowed.

Using the hot water dispenser for green tea at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Using the hot water dispenser for green tea at a sushi restaurant in Japan

2. What to do. You’re free to take any plate you like from the conveyor, but once you take the plate etiquette is you keep it. Even if you don’t eat it all, never put a half consumed plate back.

3. Plates are colour-coded. Each plate pattern equals a certain amount of money. There’s usually a chart somewhere on the walls that shows you the value of each plate design. Keep your own plates and never trade with other people, and never put them back on the conveyor. When your finished dining, tell one of the young waiters that you want the bill, “okaike kudasai”, and he or she will tot up the bill based on the number and types of plates you’ve stacked up. Typically plates cost from about ¥220 to about ¥650, and you’d have about six plates to a meal. I’ve never paid more than ¥1,500 for a good meal that gives me lots of energy for the next day.

A salmon plate at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A salmon plate at a sushi restaurant in Japan

4. Ordering plates. Yes, even if what you want to try isn’t currently doing the rounds, you can order from the menu. Usually on quiet evenings they don’t put out their whole menu, as it’d be wasted at the end of the night. The menu almost always includes a range of tuna, salmon, octopus, squid, salmon roe, shrimp, and egg servings. Usually sake, beer, and Japanese style deserts are available.

Dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A small dipping bowl with soy and wasabi a sushi restaurant in Japan

A small dipping bowl with soy and wasabi a sushi restaurant in Japan

5. This little plate is for your soy and wasabi. It’s not the usual soy sauce, but one that’s especially formulated for sushi. Pour some onto your little dish. Add a small dab of wasabi on the side, and stab at it and mix it into the soy sauce. Gently dab the rice part of your sushi into the soy and then put the whole lot into your mouth in one go. But be aware that usually there’s already a dab of wasabi between the rice and the meat. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, wasabi is hot, and in large quantities it has the magical powers of sinus clearing. So be conservative at first on how much wasabi you add to your little dish.

A stack of plates after dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A stack of plates after dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Bonus. Finally, if you’re unsure about something, do what I do. Just stop and watch what other people are doing. In all my travels, for any new experience, it’s almost always better to be chaperoned by a local who can give you a little guidance, inside info, and interesting personal accounts of something. In short, it’s more fun with friends, especially if they’re locals. Enjoy.

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5 Things to do this Spring in Japan

Are you thinking of what to do in Japan these Spring holidays? Look no further. Of course I talk mainly of Nagoya in central Japan. In case you don’t know. Nagoya is the major city in between Tokyo and Osaka. It is the home of the Toyota Motor Corporation, and the famous blue Central JR bullet trains. Land prices here rival that of Tokyo and London, and it’s one of the richest cities in the world. It’s also a convenient base for travellers. So, if you’re going to be in Japan and looking for travel ideas, start with these. Oh, and here’s one little trivial point to mention. The Spring holidays start mid-Winter (end of January), and finish in early Spring (early April). Don’t ask me why, just go with it.

For each below, there are links that include How to Get There information.


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1. Plum blossoms

Plum flowers typically bloom in about the last week of February and last until about mid-March (depending on the species and the weather). These flowers have more petals than cherry blossoms, last longer, and have more vibrant colours. These flowers used to be the most revered until a Kyoto poet captured Japanese hearts for the cherry blossoms. Plum flowers can be enjoyed at many major parks, including private botanic gardens like Nabana no Sato, the Nagoya Agricultural Centre, and Higashiyama Park (at Higashiyama Koen Station, Higashiyama Line).

Plum flowers
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2. Osaka Sumo Tournament

The Osaka Sumo Tournament is a little unique. It’s the only sumo tournament where the wrestlers need to walk through the public areas between the fighting mound in the centre of the stadium, to the changing rooms out back. So you can get close enough to get clear photos of the wrestlers just before and after their bouts. The tournament runs from the second Sunday of March for fifteen days until the fourth Sunday. Tickets are available online and can be picked up at the venue from special machines; don’t forget your purchase code and info. Learn more about the sumo here at the Going to a Sumo Tournament post.

Osaka Sumo
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3. The Naked Man Festival

Don’t worry, they’re not all men; they’re not completely naked; and it’s not so much a festival that you have to take part in… unless you really want. It’s held annually on the 15th of January in the lunar calendar (usually between mid February to early March). In 2015 it was held on the 3rd March (Gregorian Calendar). The festival attracts about 13,000 participants (males from about 6 or 7yo, to those about 70 or 80. You’ll even see tattooed gangsters playing their part as members of the community, too. You’ll have to bump your way through a crowd of perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 spectators of mainly excited women and girls. The festival is also known as the Hadaka Matsuri (“hadaka” is ‘naked’, and “matsuri” is ‘festival’).


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4. The Fertility Festival

Like the Naked Man Festival, this festival traces it’s roots to ancient Japan and is held with strong religious connections. It basically is a large wooden phallus being joyously carried through the Tagata township. On the internet it’s also known as the penis festival. It’s held on the 15th March each year (Gregorian Calendar). See here for specific info on the Tagata Fertility Festival.


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5. Cherry blossoms / Sakura

Of course, no mention of Spring and Japan is complete without mentioning the delicate and fleeting petals of a tree that bears no fruit, yet covers almost every temple and shrine and park in the country for about one week. The image below was taken at Nagoya Castle. You can get there via the subway Meijo Line, at the Shyakusho-mae Station in downtown or central Nagoya. The castle is also a museum and has the Nagoya gymnasium which hosts the July summer sumo tournament. There are some specific things you can do in this fleeting time, typically one week, and it involves friends, alcohol, bad decisions, and can be day or night. Learn five things about hanami here (hanami literally means “flowers-see”).


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Bonus: Tado Horse Festival

The Tado Horse Festival is held in the Golden Week holidays, the end of April and early May. It’s held in Tado, a small township just outside of Kuwana city, which itself is outside of Nagoya. The festival typically attracts about 120,000 spectators. It’s major.


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5 Great reasons to be in Japan this summer

There’s usually plenty of reasons to be in a major city like London, Melbourne, or New York during summer. Though, I’ve heard Parisians tend to evacuate their city in summer. Anyway, summer seems to be the time when office workers discover a world outside their buildings, uni students discover life after exams, communities look over their garden walls and discover they’ve got neighbours. As you’ll also soon see, Japan is a land of superlatives. Here’s the top 5 reasons why summer in Japan is great.

 

5. Sumo in Nagoya

Nagoya is Japan’s fourth largest city, and is conveniently situated between Tokyo and Osaka. The Nagoya Summer Grand Sumo Tournament is held for the 15 days (from Sunday to Sunday) in the middle of July.

For this sumo photo, and others like it, see the Sumo gallery at my PhotoShelter portfolio. This is the hottest sumo tournament. Really, you’ll be sweating a lot in the stadium. You’ll need to pay inflated prices for cool drinks, but fans are free.

 

4. Festivals

There’s lots of them. Everywhere, almost every weekend from about the end of July to mid to late August. Look up some travel related websites to find out what’s going on, where, and more precisely when. There’s a variety of festivals including sea / marine, fire, community, dance, and more.

The Kuwana Stone-bringing festival is held on the first weekend of August, annually. This is apparently the loudest festival in Japan. See here for the Ishidori / Stone-bringing Festival gallery on my PhotoShelter portfolio.

 

3. Tenjin Festival

This festival, yes another festival, is supposedly the biggest in Japan with possibly a million people gathering in the festival vicinity at some point during the day or evening. The Tenjin Festival is held on the 24th and 25th of July each year.

The men's part of the Tenjin procession.

The men’s part of the Tenjin procession.

For this photo, and others like it, see my agent’s website, “Tenjin Matsuri“.

 

2. The World Cosplay Summit

It’s usually held on the first weekend in August in Central Park, Sakae, in the centre of Nagoya. The World Cosplay Summit (WCS) is trying to become the central or focal point of the cosplay culture. However, the main rule is that all costumes must be of a Japanese origin comic, animation, video game etc. So no Star Wars, no Harry Potter, no foreign stuff. In short, it’s a big soft-touch diplomacy thing to centralise and promote Japan. That said, it’s still great. Unfortunately, the actual competition performances are bilingual up until the main TV sponsor, Aichi TV, starts to air the competition later in the evening, then all the announcements are in Japanese only.

The Finnish team parading on the Red Carpet on the day of the World Cosplay Summit competition performances.

The Finnish team parading on the Red Carpet on the day of the World Cosplay Summit competition performances.

For this photo, and others like it, see my Cosplay gallery in my PhotoShelter portfolio and my agent’s website, “Japan Cosplay“. One of the Finnish girls admitted to me that she was warned that it would be hot and humid, and not the choose a costume that is inappropriate for the heat. She admitted they thought they made a good decision, but it seems summer in Nagoya is not like summer in Finland.

 

1. Fireworks

I don’t know why, but Japanese people associate fireworks displays with feeling cooler. Somehow high temperature explosives gives them some relief from the night time heat. Firework displays are held probably every weekend from mid July to late August somewhere in the country. This display in Kuwana city is held on the last Saturday of July. A weekend later Tsu city has it’s display, then a weekend after that is another in Gifu, and it goes on. It’s a time when families bring out the eskies / cooler boxes, with cool drinks, beers, dinner, insect repellent, picnic rug or folding chairs, eat, chat, and wait for the fireworks to begin.

For this photo, and others like it, see my Night in Japan gallery on my PhotoShelter portfolio. Note, this photo was taken a some distance, and with my widest angle lens (at 17mm), and it just fits in the frame.

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5 ill-conceived things in Japan

No country is perfect, and certainly, it’s easier to see things when you’re on the outside looking in. However, in the hope of improving life, or making life just that bit easier, here’s five things that weren’t so well thought through, and lessons could be learnt from. In case you don’t like what I say, do remember that last month I did 5 Things About Japan that Totally Rock, and that no country is perfect, every country has problems and awesomeness.

1. Free Wifi for Tourists: 3,000 Wifi hotspots for foreign tourists (Sankei). It sounds great, right? You would hope that it would be ‘no strings attached’, but I doubt it. Two of the sponsors are the Osaka tourism bureau and the Kansai business association. In other words, they want to feed you with “information” about where you should spend your money, whilst only providing you with “information” about their club members. I would also be wary, especially when you should consider safeguarding your personal info. “Free” wifi hotspots in Japan are apparently already available in English, but typically there is a sign up page in Japanese, and they are likely to send you spam, in Japanese. The sign up page is likely to ask you for your demographic information, which won’t be related to providing you with free, unbiased information. JR East, the train company that services Tokyo and surrounds, has sold customer Pasmo card information to companies, including age, commuting information, statistics, and so forth without prior consent or such. Apparently, they have not sold customer names, but no word on if they also sold customer contact details or not. So far, no privacy guarantees have been made regarding what they do with the information you provide and your browsing data, and I really doubt they will bother. However, it isn’t such a bad thing. Currently, it’s nearly impossible for a non-resident to get a mobile phone sim card in Japan, even for tourists (see how you can get a sim card at this previous blogpost). Consequently, free internet is better than allowing phone companies charge for phone and internet access (they won’t let you use your overseas model, but force you to buy a two-year contract). Currently, most of the proposed wifi hotspots will be around tourist areas and public transport just in Osaka. Otherwise, Starbucks provides free wifi at the cost of a coffee, and simply only your email address.

A tourist using Google Maps on an iPhone at a major tourist destination to find their way.

A tourist using Google Maps on an iPhone at a major tourist destination to find their way.

 

2. English language websites and information

Bouncing straight from internet to Japanese “English language websites”, is the lack of credible English language websites. Many major companies (far bigger, and much richer than JapanesePhotos.Asia), has websites with extensive information in Japanese. Train companies have some good and detailed information on how to get discounts for travel, and earn points on your travel card. However at time of writing nothing in English, or very little or it’s very out of date. Considering that banks and train companies deal with tens of thousands of non-Japanese speaking customers every day, it’s amazing to consider that they think nothing of a sizeable portion of their expat customers. That’s right, banks do not provide any web-based banking services in English (or other major languages in Japan, including Portuguese, Chinese, nor Korean). Banks do have English language websites, but these are only for investors, not customers. Is JapanesePhotos.Asia any different? Well, I wish I had a budget and team of people to write and translate stories. What information I do provide in Japanese is for potential models, though (model call).

 

3. Employment

Japan has a three tiered system. At the top is the full-time tenured employment, with full benefits for health and pension. Second is contract full-time, usually for a maximum of three or five years. At the bottom is the part-time contract, also for only three or five years maximum. The reason for this is that only full-time tenured employees are entitled to health and pension benefits at company expense, but no-one else is. Most companies want to avoid paying health and pension, so they usually employ staff for a limited term. Even if the job is permanently required, the person filling it is not. As a consequence, most workers in Japan are temps. So is it any wonder that over 70% or 90% (depending on source) of people haven’t felt any benefit from an apparently improved economy? (CNN, and Japan Today). Also, some companies apparently have 70% of their staff classified as managers, which is supposedly because companies aren’t legally required to pay their managers overtime, allowing a loophole for cost-cutting. Japanese companies demand undying loyalty of their workers, but don’t seem willing to return in kind.

Company employees carefully crossing the street in icy conditions.

Company employees carefully crossing the street in icy conditions.

 

4. Software, Internet, and computing

This time it’s not a problem of Japanese people’s making (I think), it’s mainly America’s. If you’ve never lived outside of your own country, you may find it hard to understand, but this is such an important issue for expats in Japan. Companies like Microsoft, Adobe and such are the biggest culprits, and others like hotelclub.com and surveymonkey.com. Websites for these companies detect that you’re trying to access their website from Japan, because the IP address is Japanese. Consequently, the website software is designed to respond to the IP address locality and provide the website for the assumed language of the reader. So, Hotelclub.com points me to their Japanese language version of their website, because the website designers assume that there are no expats or travellers in Japan, only Japanese people live in Japan, and that all people in Japan can read Japanese. Worse still, you can change the language to your preferred language, but you need to read and understand which one of these is yours: 日本語 and 英語 or ドイツ語 or even 韓国語. The solution would be easy, just write the name of the language IN that language (Wikipedia does it); or instead of detecting the IP address location, use the browser’s language detection. Microsoft’s and Adobe’s strategy to prevent software piracy is to make it impossible for expats in Japan to get their products from shops or even download from their websites their software. Microsoft forces you to use their website in Japanese, and prevents you from trying to purchase software from their American (English language) website. And the Japanese MS website will only allow you to download the Japanese language version of their software, anyway. Consequently, years ago many of my expat friends had to share software. Now we don’t try, we just wait until someone does a trip overseas and ask them to purchase it for us. No wonder why people here have changed from Microsoft and PC machines to the multi-lingual Apple software (I even changed to Linux for a while). Such treatment is a constant reminder that expats don’t belong.

Customers in the Apple store in Japan.

 

5. Illegal tracking

It was recently announced that Japan Rail Osaka will allow a company to install cameras and face-recognition software to track customers. It’s actually illegal to do this, but the company will do it anyway. The reason given is that they will use the data for disaster evacuation research. However, in normal conditions people will chose exits they need to use, rather than the closest one available. Besides, why is facial recognition required for disaster evacuation? This was not explained. What will the company do with this information? Again, not explained.

 

6. Customer Service

Yes, I know, “But Japan is renowned for it’s high quality customer service!”. Yes, I have experienced the I-couldn’t-care-if-you-lived-or-died customer service in my own country. Here, when you present yourself to store staff, they go through the robotic motions of pretending to care and go the extra mile for their customers. It’s a quality that Japanese people think is unique to Japan. It’s not. In Korea they say “the customer is king”, meaning treat all customers like royalty. In Taiwan it varies, where there is a desire to please (to have return customers) to having personalised care for the customers they actually do like. In contrast, Japanese store staff avoid me. In the big stores the customer service staff steer clear from me, and it’s only when I catch one in flight between (Japanese) customers can I get my questions answered. Who are the culprits? Well, all of the major companies so far. Bic Camera (see the picture below), Softmap, Yamada Denki, and even when the Starbucks person goes round with free samples, I’m either last or don’t get any. Which, is why I’ve added this number six point in a list of five; I’m writing this in Starbucks, sitting next to a Grande Cappuccino, and contemplating where I’ll have my lunch. Also, if the staff at McDonalds, Starbucks, or a supermarket say something and you either didn’t quite catch it or didn’t understand their Japanese, they may repeat it in well-pronounced competent English. Only to return to Japanese for the rest of the interaction, which is totally bizarre. In Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and most European countries, if they suspect that you’re an English speaker, they use English with you from start to finish. Only in my experience in Japan (and Italy) do they use only their first language with you, and only in Japan when they are obviously more competent in English than you are in Japanese, do they insist that you continue to struggle in Japanese. Good luck with that in the 2020 Olympics.

Customer service fail

Customer service fail

Also see 5 Things About Japan that Totally Rock.

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5 Things about Japan that totally rock

I try to make these monthly lists unique, and without repeating what others have already said to ad nauseam. So, here are 5 things you might not know already about Japan.

 

1. Trains

There’s lots of them. They’re everywhere. Even if you live here, you don’t really need to own a car at all. I know a family who rents a car two or three times a year, whilst most people don’t bother buying one; otherwise they’re an unnecessary expense. Cities are connected usually by city government-owned subway trains and buses, as well as some private train and bus companies. Then, satellite cities that feed into major metropolitan cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Yokohama have mainly private train companies and Japan Rail (JR). Then cities are linked mainly by JR East, JR Central, JR West, or JR Hokkaido companies. This includes the infamous bullet train (see 5 Things about Bullet Trains).

A local train that services rural towns and feeds to a satellite city of Nagoya. To see this image, and others like it, see the Transport gallery.

 

2. Unique festivals

How many other countries or communities you know has a penis festival, and can be very open about it? Well, to be more descriptively precise, a fertility festival, the video below shows the male fertility festival, and there’s also a female one held some weeks later (no pun intended). There’s also a Naked Man Festival, a Stone Bringing Festival, Doll Festival, dance festivals, and many other festivals.

A YouTube video of the Tagata Fertility Festival, see here for the Tagata Fertility Festival gallery, and past blog posts.

 

3. Fishing

Yep, how often do you see someone in a wooden boat, with a huge fire, catch fish with birds. Yes, I really do mean they use cormorants tied to rice hemp lines to dive into the river water, catch some fish, and then come up and cough them up into the boat. The lines keep the birds from getting away and from swallowing the fish. After watching the fish catching display, you can retire to a nearby restaurant to sample these fine hacked up aquatic cuisine. Cormorant fishing is done in various places including Inuyama, and is a summer thing that usually runs from May to October. The trip costs about ¥2,500 for basically an hour wait and a 20 minute one-run along the river, and then it’s over.

For this photo of cormorant fishing at Inuyama, and others like it, see the Night in Japan gallery.

 

4. Convenience stores

Convenience stores are everywhere. I heard that at any time (usually) you’re never more than 300 meters from a convenience store. Which is better than what I hear about not being more than 3 meters from a rat in New York. Anyway, in some small towns these small modern general stores serve as pseudo supermarkets, and for everyone a refuge from the winter cold or summer heat. They have a huge selection of drinks, snacks, and even lunch sets, and even hygiene supplies for office staff who were either too busy to go home, or too drunk to catch the last train. Lawsons (pictured) is starting to offer space with tables and chairs, too. Though this is coming 15 years after similar companies were doing the same in South Korea.

For this photo see see it in my PhotoShelter portfolio, and other convenience store photos see my agent’s website via search: “Japanese convenience store”.

 

5. People leave you alone

Basically, you’re left alone and people don’t bother you. The police are hard to find, mainly because they don’t need to come out of their police stations, unless they really have to. I cannot think of a lazier police force. People don’t pass judgements of you, and so you get an illusion of total freedom. Of course, some travellers and expats mistake this as a license to horse around and behave like juveniles, so please don’t. Tourists and expats have been banned from the famous Tokyo fish markets already. If you have tatoos, cover them with plasters or t-shirts. Don’t wear tracks suits or sports suits in public, people usually wear these as pyjamas. When my family came to visit, people somehow sensed they were tourists and were very warm and welcoming, and helpful. For me? Maybe I look like a local now, and so nobody cares.

For this photo of a naked guy giving a pink ribbon to a high school girl, as a policeman watches on, and others like it, see the Naked Man Festival gallery.

 

There’s of course many more things, but this is just a taste. You’ll have to come and see the rest for yourself. There are thousands more photos at my PhotoShelter portfolio, and my agent’s website. Also, 5 Ill Conceived Things in Japan coming next month.

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5 Things about “Hanami” (Cherry Blossom Viewing)

Welcome to Spring. Japanese people go crazy over cherry blossom viewing, I guess because it’s the first sign that the winter cold is breaking, and warmer days are clearly ahead. However, the plum flowers are already blooming, and have been for most species for about a month, but the cherry blossoms (or “sakura”) bloom for a week before the Spring breezes blows the petals away. Also, even though there are hundreds of thousands of these trees across the country in various species and varieties, most of these bear no edible fruit.

A young Japanese lady admiring the cherry blossoms. For this model released photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter Seasons gallery.

 

1. Weather and when

The cherry trees blossoming is triggered by warmer weather, beginning in Okinawa in the south in February, to central Japan where they typically blossom in the second week of April, to Hokkaido in June (I think). The trees typically remain in bloom for seven or eight days. If there’s heavy rain, the petals are out for a very short time, but if the weather remains mild, the cherry blossom parties, or “Hanami Matsuri” can go on for nearly two weeks. Japanese Meteorological Agency used to provide blooming forecasts for nearly fifty years, but a few years ago they ended this service. Too many tour companies have tried to sue the JMA for inaccurate forecasting, costing the tour companies lots of money because of their own inflexibility and understanding of weather and nature. Now there are websites that make their own predictions that you can use like JNTO.


For this cherry blossom (sakura) photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter Cherry Blossoms gallery.

 

2. Language point

The following contains both Roman, Chinese and Hiragana characters. “Hanami” (花見、はなみ), literally means ‘flower viewing’ (Wikipedia), but what Japanese people really mean is just hanging out and enjoying cherry blossom trees. “Sakura” (桜、さくら) means ‘cherry trees’ and ‘cherry blossoms’, and “ume” (梅、うめ) means ‘plum’, ‘plum tree’, and ‘plum flowers’.

Flowers on a Japanese plum tree. For this photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter Cherry Blossoms gallery.

 

3. How it’s celebrated

Usually cherry blossom parties are held by groups of people. Usually work colleagues, community groups (typically neighbourhood groups), university clubs, groups of friends, and some times families get together for this. For evening parties, one or two poor sods have to get a tarp and some basic supplies and stake out a good spot until the evening when the others arrive. Usually its the young office staff or secretaries job to do this. Otherwise, most folks have their party in the day time. I think it’s still quite uncomfortably cool even in the day time, so day time parties are more common. They usually have a small bar-be-cue, have sake and beer, and relax and enjoy themselves without any loud frivolities.

For this Hanami (cherry blossom party) photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter Cherry Blossoms gallery.

 

4. Why cherry blossoms and not plum flowers?

Good question. The plum flowers are out much longer, they start earlier, and some species are out in the warmer part of spring, too. Also, plum flowers are usually much nicer or prettier. In fact, in the Nara period (710-794AD), it was the plum flowers that were revered, and to some extent the cherry blossoms and wisteria. Later, because of famous literary works focusing on cherry blossoms, the other options fell to the wayside (Wikipedia/Hanami History). Cherry blossoms are out for only a week typically at the start of April in central Japan. This timing, and brevity, seems to act as a convenient demarcation in time for Japanese people. School and university calendars start in April, companies have their new recruits start in April, companies transfer their staff to start in April, so March-April is also the moving season. The end of March marks the end of storage and tax-thingamy time, so major electronics stores have sales before new models are shipped and put on display. It seems the start of April is the time when Japan hits the reset button and lots of things starts fresh.

For this cherry blossom school sports photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter Cherry Blossoms gallery.

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5. Legend

Continuing on from point 4 above, it is said by Japanese people that the life of a samurai is short lived, with the sudden start and end as the cherry blossoms themselves. A good for a samurai is to have a quick sudden end, rather than a gradual fade to nothing, much like the sudden fall of petals from a cherry tree.

Nagoya castle in the Spring. For this photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter Cherry Blossoms gallery.

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5 Unique things from JPA

I don’t normally blow my own trumpet or show off, but sometimes you have to sing your own praises. However, how else can credit go where credit is due in this dynamic, short-term memory age of the internet. JPA has done some things that were not previously seen on the internet before. However, I’m not claiming to be the first, but these ideas were independently thought of by me (without having seen others do it first), or revived by me. So, what is there to be so proud about?

 

5. Camera-back photos / preview & announcements

As at time of writing (mid-January, 2014), this photo of the Tado Horse festival is 624 days old. I think it is probably also the first time anyone has photographed the back of their camera and posted an update to a social network. This was posted via iPhone to Twitpic, to Twitter. Luckily, I’ve worked out how to make these camera-back photos look more interesting (recent example). Here’s the rest of my Twitpic portfolio for social networking.

#Tado #Horse #Festival The horse got over the barrier. We&#03... on Twitpic

 

4. Referencing Information

I didn’t invent referencing. The Harvard, Oxford, and APA referencing styles for academic writing has been around for much longer than I’ve been alive. However, I am one of the very few bloggers who provide links to my information sources. So if I write about the Naked Man Festival, News events, the Tado Horse Festival, the Tenjin Festival, whatever, I provide a little bit of starting information to help put my photos in context for journalists and sources to get them going.

The start of the Tenjin Festival (Tenjin Matsuri) at Tenjin Shrine, Osaka.

The start of the Tenjin Festival (Tenjin Matsuri) at Tenjin Shrine, Osaka. Photo available via my agent’s website.

 

3. Demonstrating promo photos

Surprisingly, I haven’t seen this catching on, yet. What better way to self-promote, and show how your own photos can be used? For these photos, and others like them, see my PhotoShelter Models gallery.

A young lady appearing as though she's holding a promo card.

A young lady appearing as though she’s holding a promo card.

Young lady looking as though she's holding the Twitter account holders name.

Young lady looking as though she’s holding the Twitter account holders name.

 

2. Double exposure photography

This is my favourite kind of photography, using good old fashioned film, with all it’s charisma, and lots of experimentation. Before publishing Poem of a Cacophonous City, I’ve not seen any double exposure photography on social networking sites nor photographer websites (I was never really a Flickr user at that time), except when you look up Pablo Picasso’s own work from decades before. It would seem that since publishing this set of photos, people have also rediscovered it, or are now sharing it beyond Flickr. For this photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter Art gallery.

 

1. Photo-videos

I don’t think I’ve the first to do this, but I’ve not seen anyone else do this one, yet. It’s simple, and I think it’s a great way to show case my work. It’s simple, choose a theme and a set of photos, or just lump all your favourite photos together, add cool music or recorded sound, and press ‘Export’, and it’s done. Here’s my YouTube Channel, and an Intro photo-video:

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Foundation Day holiday

It’s the annual Foundation Day holiday today, 11th February. So, here are five facts about the public holiday. It used to be celebrated on the lunar calendar equivalent, but for convenience the Japanese have abandoned it for the Gregorian calendar.

1. What. This day marks the time when Emperor Jimmu created the throne to rule Japan in 660BC (Wikipedia/Public Holidays in Japan) and began the imperial order. The actual year is contested, and the emperor is said to have died at the age of 126 years (Wikipedia/Emperor Jimmu).

2. Why. At the time when Emperor Jimmu established the Japanese empire, much of the main island was inhabited by both Japanese and Ainu people, of which there were also Japanese tribal chiefs that Jimmu had to still militarily defeat. Jimmu was unsuccessful in defeating the cheif of Naniwa (now ‘Osaka’), but continued trying to expand ‘Japan’. Emperor Jimmu himself expanded the empire further east and north, to modern day Kii Peninsula (south of Nagoya, but east of Osaka; Wikipedia/Emperor Jimmu).

3. Legacy. Japanese expansionism in the pre-war era was attested to this emperor, and was used in Japanese propaganda, which was abandoned in 1945. The modern holiday was established in 1966, and first celebrated in 1967. In my whole time in Japan, I only came to realise the holiday existed after I took the photo below. Usually, to celebrate the holiday, young people go out on shopping dates. Not much else happens that I’m aware of, I guess because the neighbours would complain about any overt Japanese patriotism associated with the day (Wikipedia/National Foundation Day).

4. Religion. Though the emperor of Japan is also the head of Shinto, and is said to be a descendant of Jimmu, the name Jimmu is of Chinese origin and is related to Buddhism (Wikipedia/Emperor Jimmu). His mausoleum is in Kashihara, Nara.

5. Etymology. Final interesting fact, the word “Japan” does not even come from the Japanese language. This place is locally known as ‘Nippon’, ‘rising sun’. The word Japan was adopted into European languages from Malay, via Dutch explorer-traders. In fact, the word originates from Chinese, ‘Jih pun’, meaning ‘sunrise’ (Etymonline).

For this Foundation Day photo, and others like it, see my PhotoShelter portfolio, and my agent’s website.

Photo taken on film on 11th Feb, 2012. A young couple out in the trendy shopping district of Sakae, Nagoya. The Japanese national flags are seen on the side of a department store building (photo on my PhotoShelter portfolio).

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