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Alanah Nasadyk - Blog Post 2: Weekend Wanderings Around Japan

Alanah Nasadyk - Blog Post 2: Weekend Wanderings Around Japan

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For this post, I’d like to diverge from the work I’ve been doing in the CITYNET Yokohama Project Office to focus on how I’ve been spending my free time getting acquainted with Japan. On weekends, holidays, and some evenings, I pick different places to visit, and with my compact camera at the ready, I go exploring. Through the following musings on the places I’ve seen, foods I’ve tasted, impressions I’ve gotten, and experiences I’ve had I hope that you can enjoy Japan vicariously from my perspective. 

Living in Yokohama means that I have the pleasure of being a short train ride or two away from many interesting places in Tokyo. Of all the places to see in the city, like Harajuku, Shibuya, Ebisu, Asakusa, and Akihabara, two of the places I most enjoy are Odaiba and Ueno. 

To reach Odaiba by public transportation usually involves a ride on the Yurikamome Monorail. This line takes a loop-de-loop along Tokyo Bay and provides spectacular views of the sprawling city’s skyscrapers in all their ominous splendour. From the monorail, you can see Tokyo Tower at a distance, and the sites of Odaiba, including a huge Ferris wheel cycling through its rainbow lightshow, and the technicolour pulse of the Fuji Television building. When it’s all lit up, the Fuji TV building’s unique architecture seems like an outlandish combination of discothèque meets office building. Depending on which stop you get off the train, there are several malls to explore and a themed onsen in the area. Urban Japan has a wonderful knack for giving ordinary restaurants, malls, and other places an extra interesting atmosphere by making them themed. The VenusFort mall is the most impressive with indoor fountains and verandas meant to mimic an 18th Century European town. I was initially drawn to Odaiba by the infamous life-sized Gundam statue. For those who did not grow up watching Japanese cartoons, Gundams are giant mechanized battle suits and icons of Japanese pop-culture. Odaiba is also home to a miniature statue of liberty, and in Japanese the statue of liberty is referred to is jiyuu no megami or the Goddess of Freedom. So even though it doesn’t seem like it, Lady Liberty kind of fits in with the other statues of deities scattered around Japan. 

Although much is said about Japan’s uniqueness, and even reinforced in historical and political discourse referred to as Nihonjinron, much of what makes up modern and even pre-modern Japan originally came from emulating and adapting aspects of other cultures. Just as many North Americans see Japan’s food, fashion, and animation as exotic and desirable, there is an idealization of aspects of Western culture in Japan, and in pre-modern Japan, there was a taste for Chinese arts, language, and philosophy as a symbol of refinement. This leads me to talk about my culinary experiences in the land of the rising sun. This year, the most noticeable food trend is the American pancake, stacked and slathered with whip cream, syrup, and fruits. No matter where you go, you’re probably not far from a restaurant serving one or more varieties of this popular food. Although that dish closely resembles the standard North American fare, you can also find any number of supposedly “Western” foods or youshoku that only really exist in Japan. To name a few: purple yam potato salad, pastas with seaweed and shimeji mushrooms, omelette rice, pizza with lotus root or corn toppings, and white bread sandwiches filled with whipcream and strawberries sans crust. Even when I am not eating traditional Japanese meals in Japan, chances are I am trying something familiar with a new and exciting local spin on it. This kind of borrowing and remixing of ethnic foods happens in Canada too, a good example would be comparing food found at Canadian Chinese restaurants with authentic Chinese cuisine. Better yet, if you come to Japan looking for more deep-fried veggie California rolls with cream cheese or the steak sauce served at “Japanese” restaurants in Canada, you will be sorely disappointed. Part of the uniqueness of Japanese cuisine and society comes from adapting those borrowed cultural aspects to local tastes and of course from maintaining truly distinct longstanding culinary and cultural traditions. 

Going back to Odaiba, and along the theme of cultural traditions, let’s explore Japan’s customs for hygiene that have stood out to me during this visit. As I mentioned before, Odaiba is home to a themed onsen or hot spring public bath. It’s called the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, and features a food court, shopping, and games area attached to the baths and modeled after an Edo Period (1603-1868) Japanese town. To add to the atmosphere, onsen revellers get their choice of yukata or cotton kimono to wear outside of the baths. In Japan, public bathing, no bathing suit included, with members of the same sex is a perfectly normal and relaxing activity. If you feel up to it, I highly recommend giving it a try. There’s nothing quite like soaking in a hot semi-outdoor bath on a cool evening surrounded by a Japanese rock garden. Concerning other hygiene habits in Japan, I noticed that many people carry a toothbrush with them and brush their teeth during the day, even in public bathrooms. I suppose that people are keen about avoiding bad breath. In spite of this habit and the custom of wearing masks to avoid spreading sickness, I was surprised to note that many public bathrooms do not have soap and even ones that do may have no hand towels or dryers. I can understand the lack of paper towels and hand dryers as perhaps wasteful and counterintuitively spreading germs. But, to a Canadian, not having soap for hand washing comes off as an uncharacteristically unhygienic practice in an place with otherwise dilligent hygiene. Perhaps it is simply too expensive to keep soap dispensers in such populous public locations and visitors are expected to carry their own. Another cleanliness observance in Japan is the requirement for taking off shoes before entering certain buildings and areas of buildings, not only in houses but also in public places such as clothing store changing rooms, some restaurants, and the entrances of bathhouses. It is interesting to learn about how faux pas regarding hygiene differ between countries, what seems shocking to one might be commonplace to the next. 

Building on the strains of intercultural influence, interesting food, and places that I thoroughly enjoyed in Japan, I want to mention my four-day visit to Okinawa. Along with the Nihonjinron concept of Japanese culture as utterly unique, comes the myth that Japanese culture is also homogenous. Okinawa is one place that dispels this myth, so do the variety of dialects throughout the nation that go well beyond the standard Tokyo speech that foreign Japanese language students and Japanese students generally learn. Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost prefecture consisting of gorgeous coral encrusted sub-tropical islands. Once its own kingdom, known as the Ryu Kyus, and a tributary state of China that benefited handsomely from trading between surrounding nations, it was eventually subsumed as part of Japan. To this day, Okinawa maintains a distinct cultural identity from the other islands of Japan. The Chinese influence in Okinawa played out differently than it did in other parts of Japan, and is quite notable in the plaintif yet delightful warbling tunes of Okinawan traditional music, the vibrant style of Shuri Castle, and in the numerous pairs of Shiisaa or mythical lion hybrid deities drawing in good luck and deterring evil throughout the region. 

At the close of World War II, Okinawa was the final battleground between the American and Japanese militaries. In the subsequent American occupation of Japan, the United States established military bases in Okinawa. To this day, amid ongoing controversy, there are still many American Military bases operating in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan. Because of the huge military presence in the comparatively small area of Okinawa, there is an obvious influence of American culture. It seems like everywhere I went in Okinawa there were signs advertising something or other as “American”, especially with regards to food. Any number of burger joints and the ubiquitous presence of taco-rice cater to both Americans stationed in Okinawa, as well as local Okinawans with a taste for Western-style food. 

Aside from intercultural influences, Okinawans are shaped by their unique geography. The warm climate of Okinawa allows for the inclusion of different fruits and vegetables in local cuisine. I tried Okinawa’s famed sour melon in a tofu stir-fry and sea grapes, which are a type of seaweed that resembles tiny green grapes in appearance but not in taste. By trying sea grapes, I discovered something that ties Okinawan cuisine to the rest of Japan, the inclusion of slimy textures in food. Both sea grapes and a long green vegetable known in English as Okra or ladyfingers have a consistency that I have not encountered in Canadian cooking. Whether they turn out to be something I enjoy or not, I try to be open to sampling most new dishes at least once. There are many Japanese foods that I was not so keen on the first time I tried them, but I now adore, such as tofu, pickled plums, and bean paste filled sweets. When it comes to going outside my food comfort zone, I find that there are many acquired tastes well worth acquiring. Just as Japan has sampled, acquired, and re-worked different cultural influences, I have been on a journey of sampling and experimenting with different aspects of Japan. 

Although I tend to focus on the quirks and differences between my experience in Japan and my usual life in Canada, I’d like to note that my intention is not to build up the image of Japan as the exotic other. There is much more in common between the people I have met in Japan and Canada than there is different. I focus on what I see as out of the ordinary because that is what sticks out in my mind most vividly and because I, like many others, enjoy the variety and novelty of the unfamiliar. As you may have gathered from everything I’ve related to you here about the past few months of living in Japan, there is such a rich wealth of culture and various enjoyments to take in, as well as jarring surprises to keep you on your toes, throughout this archipelago. Maybe I’ve piqued your interest in seeking out not only the variety of experiences and insights Japan has to offer, but also inspired your curiosity in exploring other places and cultures beyond your front door. At the very least, I hope you enjoyed reading these memories and impressions of living abroad as much as I did relating them.