Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Voice of the People

At breakfast and dinner I have the opportunity to watch some Japanese TV with my host family. Often we watch the news, but sometimes we watch one of the many variety shows that are some mix between American game shows and reality shows. Every once in a while they would invite the viewers at home to vote on some topic and 4 primary-colored boxes would appear. I noticed that those colors were lined up in the same order on the TV remote. It apparently costs extra to activate, but this voting system is built into just about every Japanese TV set. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

50th post!

Wow, this came up pretty fast. I've learned quite a bit about what it's really like to live in Japan, but I've definitely got a lot more to learn in the months to come. I've really enjoyed making these blog posts and I intend to continue to do so in the future. I really appreciate your feedback, if you find a post especially interesting or have a question about anything related to Japan or photography, please let me know.

This blog has received around 2.5k views so far which is pretty cool if you ask me. It's also cool to think that so many of you take time out of your day to read this. I've heard that even my grandmother reads my blog as part of her morning routine. Hi Grandma!

I hope I can continue to provide great content for you guys. If you know anyone else who is interested in all things Japan, please point them in my direction! Thanks!


Scott S.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Toyota Logo(s)

I assume most people in America have become familiar with the Toyota logo. The logo clearly marks a car as one produced by Toyota Motor Company of Japan and distinguishes it from other brands. That is typically the function of a product logo. In Japan, most auto manufacturers have a unique logo which they place on all of their cars. Toyota, however, has numerous logos, some associated with a particular model and others associated with an entire line of vehicles. The rear logo of all Toyota cars is the same as the logo used in America, but the front logo is quite often different depending on the model. Here are some logos that I've encountered since coming to Japan.

These are all cars produced by Toyota and they all feature the standard Toyota logo on the back. A few models have the standard logo on the front including the Prius line, but this is uncommon. Toyota produces an extremely large number of models for the Japanese market so the different logos may be used to help differentiate models by level of luxury or sportiness.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Some Like It Hot

At a few vending machines you can purchase coffee drinks that are hot. I don't think this system was thought out very well though as hot liquid in a metal can is not the best idea. Also, the coffee is dispensed immediately suggesting that it is kept hot all the time. The drink I tried had milk in it and it didn't taste quite right. It's a pretty impressive technological achievement in any case.


I've seen sets of screens like this at most train stations and I didn't realize until recently what they are for. These screens display areas further down the boarding platform. The man at the end of the train as described in this post checks these screens and ensures that everyone has boarded before he closes the doors.

I would also like to make a correction related to the above-mentioned post. Previously I suggested that the front and rear of the trains were identical, this is not usually true. I've seen some special trains where this is the case, but for most trains like the one pictured in the post, the front actually has considerably more controls.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Knuckle Warmers

In Japan, gas costs around $5.77/gal meaning that driving can be seriously expensive. Because of this, many people drive scooters and sometimes motorcycles. The items pictured here appear to be designed to shield the driver's hands from the elements. I can't say for sure, but this seems rather unsafe.

Safety First

On busy roads through residential areas, you often see plastic signs in the shape of children asking drivers to look out for kids in the road. This is an older, probably homemade version and I find something terribly ironic about the fact that it appears to have been hit by a car at some point in the past.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Oppressive Tree Society

Sometimes I can't decide whether Japanese society is tougher on it's people, or it's trees. Though as a foreigner I am free of the various pressures felt by Japanese people to conform to certain societal expectations, I am aware that for Japanese people, these pressures are great and profoundly shape how people live their lives.

Similarly, trees are expected to grow in ways that are extremely unnatural in the name of beauty. It seems like the true art is keep the trees alive as they are contorted into seemingly impossible shapes. I've seen styles where the gardener clips off all but the outermost leaves on each of the branches of the tree and yet somehow it survives. The tree pictured here is kind of fun. It looks like the owner is trying to create a decorative touch over the front gate by heavily altering the growth of a nearby tree. So far so good.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Starting in the 1950s, to offset the housing demand created by the then-increasing Japanese population, the Japanese government began building giant housing developments known as Danchi (団地) which literally means "group land." In contrast with traditional Japanese architecture at the time, the Danchi were entirely utilitarian and almost completely devoid of style. The individual apartments of a Danchi are almost identical and a Danchi complex may consist of numerous identical buildings. Pictured here are buildings C36-38 of a single complex that I later discovered extends from C1 to C40.

Quite often Danchi are used to symbolize the loss of traditional culture in Japan as it becomes more westernized. I am aware of a Japanese TV drama that focuses on the difficulties of adapting traditional ideas of community and family to life in Danchi.

Despite their negative perception, Danchi do make it possible to live somewhat affordably in the more heavily crowded areas of Japan. I've read about a Danchi in the center of Tokyo where a one bedroom apartment costs $600/month which is really a steal. Similarly, my host brother lives in a Danchi in a suburb of Osaka for only $80/month. While they certainly lack style and individuality, Danchi do provide a means to live reasonably in a country where space is always at a premium.

Always in the Distance

I'd gotten so used to it I forgot to mention that much of the Kansai region is bordered by mountains that are often quite visible in the distance. Coming from Minnesota where the closest thing to a mountain I've seen is that wicked sledding hill over by.... anyway, when I got here it was pretty strange to always see mountains on the horizon. While I've often entertained the idea of walking up into the mountains, in reality they're actually quite far away and I'm not aware of any train lines that take you close to the largely uninhabited regions near the mountains.

While this picture doesn't offer the clearest view of the mountains I've come across, it gives a good idea of what people in Osaka see on a daily basis as they go about their day.

Water Defence

Ever since I got to Japan, I've noticed large bottles of water seemingly on display outside various people's homes. I had gotten used to it, but after seeing this house which takes this practice to the extreme, I had to find out what it was about.

I asked my host mother and she told me that people who don't want dogs and cats peeing on their walls setup these bottles because the way they reflect light is thought to scare animals, discouraging them from peeing. She also said that in her opinion, the bottles are more of an eyesore than some urine and I would have to agree.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lotte の Fits

Continuing to be a slave to Japanese advertising, I bought this gum today, but I mean, how could I resist? I even took a few minutes to learn the dance.

Shrine Mutual Respect

I went on a class field trip to one of the largest settlements of Koreans in Japan. Most of the people there were born and raised in Japan, but because of Japan's system of naturalization, many of them are not Japanese citizens. The area we experienced primarily consisted of Korean food shops. This was the first time I saw signs written in Hangul (the Korean alphabet) in Japan.

Nearby, a very small Danjiri (portable shrine) festival was taking place. This is an entirely Japanese event though some ethnic Koreans likely participate. This background of this festival was rather interesting. In the past there were two villages that were geographically very close but separated by a large river. In recent times, the river was diverted meaning that the villages were suddenly in closer contact. Each village had it's own Danjiri festival so when the river was moved, they began holding their festivals at the same time. As a show of respect, the Danjiri from one village travels to the main permanent shrine in the other village and "bows" to the shrine. Pictured here, as the musicians inside the Danjiri beat a lively rhythm, men from the village tip the back of the Danjiri up making it appear as though it is bowing to the other village's permanent shrine.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Edgy" in Japan

While this is a somewhat difficult point to get across, basically, youth in Japan are all talk and no walk when it comes to acts of deviance and actually, that's probably a good thing. Looking around campus at my university I see some very interesting alternative forms of dress. If these people were American's I would assume they were part of a rather serious subculture and probably did something rather illegal from time to time. Getting to know some of these people though, I find that many of them are simply interested in expressing individuality and are, in fact, very well-behaved people.

As with many other American subcultures, the symbols of Marijuana culture in the US have become somewhat popular with young people in Japan. I've seen many T-shirts, bags, and wallets emblazoned with Marijuana-related symbols. I've also seen pot-leaf air fresheners in people's cars and in stores. Once again, in practice, most of these people do not actually partake in the consumption of illicit drugs as doing so in Japan is criminalized to a ridiculous extent. It seems that it is just an expression of the desire to be different.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Floor Space

While the area around my house in a suburb of Osaka is fairly crowded, the land isn't quite expensive enough to justify the construction of a building like this. I saw this building on a recent trip to downtown Osaka. They're somehow able to cram two apartments per floor into this extremely skinny building. I guess if you really want to be in the heart of the action downtown sharing a single lot with 20 other people is not so bad. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A nice light to walk by.

On an especially late walk I noticed these delightful streetlights. Japan is exceptionally safe even at night so I am able to wander about in the dark and not worry about running into dangerous people. I'm starting to like city-life but I'm not sure I could be so carefree in an American city.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Seeing the Donut Sights

I visited the Mr. Donuts in Shinsaibashi and Nipponbashi, two of the biggest shopping centers in Osaka. Both stores had the same Donuts. Maybe I should start trying donuts from other shops, or maybe eating things that aren't donuts. More on this story as it develops. 

Coming Clean

It's taken a while to put this post together as usually when I'm using this space, I don't want my camera anywhere near. In any case, today I will be discussing my bathroom! 

While in a previous post I used the term bathroom, this time I literally mean the room with a bath. I've found talking with my non-American friends that the American use of the term, "bathroom" is somewhat uncommon. In other English-speaking countries it appears that, "bathroom" is interpreted literally and is not used to refer to the toilet as in America. 

In any case, before I discuss the actual bathroom I'll start with what I guess you could call the pre-bathroom. It is here that one removes their clothes and leaves their towel before entering the bathroom using the door on the left. This room is also where my host parents do their laundry and perform their morning routine.

The bathroom is actually a prefabricated plastic chamber that is waterproof from top to bottom. When I mentioned to my host mother that in America, the bath, toilet, and sink are often together in an otherwise regular room, she was shocked and couldn't imagine how we dealt with issues like mold. I will say it is somewhat liberating to be able to turn on the shower and not have to worry about where the water falls.

The shower head has two functions, it can be held in the hand or set on an adjustable-height stand to act like a regular shower. All the water is controlled by a faucet near the floor, turning the knob clockwise sends water to the shower head and turning the knob counter-clockwise sends water to a rotating spigot that can be used to fill the bathtub or fill up a bowl for a sponge bath.

The temperature of the water is controlled by the panel on the wall above the tub. Basically you set the temperature you would like and the system keeps the water at that temperature. I recently learned that my host father built the house such that the kitchen and upstairs sinks use the same water heater controlled by this panel so when one is done in the bathroom one is supposed to simply lower the temperature back down to 32C or so. I didn't realize this and on several occasions turned the entire system off meaning that the entire house had no hot water. My host mother was understanding though I was quite embarrassed.

In a traditional Japanese bath, the water would be kept warm by a fire outside connected to the bath by a set of tubes. Such baths were designed such that the act of heating the water actually caused it to circulate through the system without mechanical assistance. The metallic disk inside of the tub emulates this system by circulating the water back through the heater using a pump. This makes it possible to keep the bathwater warm indefinitely allowing multiple family members to use it.

Finally, I was initially taken aback by the fact that there is a large eye-level window in the bathroom. After some investigating I found that between the window and the neighboring house there is only about a 1-foot gap and that space has been partially filled by excess building materials my host father has collected over time. Because of this it is practically impossible to see into the bathroom window from outside.

This bathroom is definitely something I will miss in returning to America.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alcohol in Japan

There are quite a few things to be said about alcohol in Japan. First of all, it's really easy to get. While the drinking age in Japan is 20, this rule is not strictly enforced and I have never been asked for ID when purchasing. There are alcohol vending machines in many places and while some require you to scan your ID, the older machines do not. If underage people want to get alcohol they can probably do so quite easily. While parents of such kids probably aren't thrilled, the police don't hunt them down as rabidly as police in the US.

While in the US glass bottles are a must for the reputation of fine alcoholic products, in Japan this is less so. Many fine brands of sake come in paper cartons much like juice cartons in the US. It is also possible to by very large quantities of even expensive brands of spirits. Suntory whisky is a household name in Japan and has won many awards both domestic and abroad. The company puts a lot of effort into maintaining the prestige of its products and is usually depicted in trademark honeycomb glass bottles (pictured right.) Despite this, it is also possible to purchase fine Suntory whisky in giant plastic bottles (pictured center.) It seems to me that breaking out the ol' 4 liter of Suntory at a fine dinner party seems in poor taste, but it might be different here.

Finally, a bit about how alcohol is referred to in Japanese. While in the west, "sake" refers to traditional Japanese rice wine, in Japan, "sake" refers to alcohol in general. For example, you might ask someone if there's, "sake" in a beverage referring to whether or not the drink is alcoholic. The Japanese word for traditional rice wine is, "nihonshu." For this reason, asking for, "sake" at a Japanese restaurant may lead to some confusion.

It's also worth noting that while drinking in public is frowned upon in Japan, being drunk in public seems to be somewhat accepted as late at night it is extremely common to see inebriated salarymen stumbling home from the bar. Because of the well developed train systems, it is quite easy to get home without driving. This may explain the general acceptance of male public drunkenness.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Curved Escalators

While I don't doubt these exist in the US, I hadn't seen one until I came to Japan and since then I've seen several. While I've seen some installed in places where space is limited such that a regular escalator wouldn't fit, I think the escalator pictured here was installed simply because it's so terribly stylish.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Real Sushi

I had the pleasure of eating at why my host family says is an authentic sushi shop. While the sushi doesn't spin around on a conveyor belt, it was exceptionally tasty.

A few years ago my father was hired to transform an empty shop space into a full sushi restaurant. In the process he become close friends with the owner and his wife. Throughout the evening my family conversed with the owner as he prepared our meals with great speed and skill.

In addition to the fresh fish clearly visible from the counter, there are many menu items I wouldn't commonly associate with sushi. For example, my host mother ordered Dobin Mushi which is basically a tea made from fish and a rare type of mushroom. While the idea of drinking fish didn't sound terribly appealing it was actually kind of good. My family also ordered a dish that was basically a giant fish's head cooked in butter. My mother explained that the best parts of the fish are in the head. Though it took some skill to pick the tiny pieces of meat from the face, they were very tender and the sauce the head was cooked in was delicious. While in the US we're rather taken aback by food with a face, in Japan it is quite normal. In the name of freshness there were even some live fish which could be slaughtered and served in a matter of minutes on request.

While you typically order individual pieces of sushi, there are also special platters such as the one in the picture. It contained an assortment of extremely beautiful vegetables and fish prepared before our eyes.

It's probably worth mentioning that the whole meal cost around $200 for 4 of us. While I can't say I though it was worth it, it was my host father's treat and it was truly amazing food.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Donut Tourism

While traveling to downtown Osaka with my host family, we had some time to kill so we stopped at a Mr. Donut in the subway station. It was much larger than the Mr. Donut in Hirakata. I had a mysterious fluffy chocolate pastry thing with coffee-flavored filling. Of course it was delicious. Sometimes I think about converting this into a donut tourism blog. It's a pretty big part of my life at this point.

The Little Things

Sometimes it's the little things that make Japan so nice. For example, toilet paper that doesn't need a roll. Other examples include: melon-flavored things, clothes that fit people like me, small stylish cars, Mr. Donut, and friendly store clerks.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Interesting Post

I see posts like this all over the place in front of commercial as well as residential buildings. They provide a barrier to discourage people from walking/biking/parking on the owner's property. When not in use they can be lowered completely into the ground. It appears that the latch mechanism for this post has broken. The owner remedied the situation using a pair of disposable chopsticks. quite ingenious

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Looking out for Others

From what I've experienced, driving in Japan is absolutely terrifying. Most residential roads barely have room to accommodate two cars. Whenever two cars meet, a delicate dance is performed as they stop, and then barely sneak by each other. When pedestrians are added to the mix it is beyond me how people aren't getting hit left and right. In reality, Japan has roughly half as many fatalities per 100,000 vehicles as the US so they must be doing something right. This statistic takes into consideration the fact that many people in Japan don't drive.

One thing likely keeping people safe are these convex mirrors installed throughout many residential areas. I've found them quite helpful in keeping track of cars as a pedestrian.

I'm especially proud of the fact that I was able to take this picture without my reflection appearing in either mirror.