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NOT To Do In Japan

Not just customs, as I wrote about last week for iloho, but rather the activities and sights that are just too cliché to even merit a visit. Check out the full story on Matador.

There are many wonderful and unspoiled places in the land of the rising sun: islands with cedar trees thousands of years old; floating shrines providing the backdrop for a sea of fireworks; girls dressed up in gothic and “living doll” costumes in Harajuku. However, for every sight you absorb on a visit to Japan, you should be aware of the paths that have been beaten to the extreme, the activities designed for tourists that are over the top, screaming cliché, or just too crowded and overpriced.

1. Don’t Spend Money on Pachinko

Pachinko is one of the few ways to legally gamble in Japan, but don’t be lured into a parlor thinking you’ll see attractions like those of Vegas. The place is beyond loud – noise making your ears bleed in matter of seconds – and full of cigarette smoke. The games themselves should be reserved for a 10th circle in Dante’s Inferno. Imagine a pinball machine with a computer screen display; once you pull the lever you have literally no control as to where the ball ends up. Just like in Vegas, you’ll find burnt out slot jockeys spending hours on end inserting yen, winning once every 27 days. Fun fun.

Do sing karaoke
A karaoke booth with an all-you-can-drink special is a much better alternative if you want to be surrounded by video screens and loud noises.

It’s nothing like a country-western karaoke bar in the U.S.

All the booths in Japan are private, so you can only make an ass of yourself in front of close friends.

The Shidax chain is my favorite, but every town should have at least one place to sing.

2. Don’t Climb Mt. Fuji… When There’s A Line

Fuji is swamped with foreign and Japanese tourists in the official hiking season (peak in August), and completely overwhelmed during the Obon holiday week; by this, I mean you will have to wait in line the entire journey to the top, and struggle to crop people out of your photos once you see the sunrise stream across a blanket of clouds.

I’m all for conversations with Japanese and international tourists, but if it means slowing your natural pace, getting stopped, and dealing with a crowd on what should be a leisurely hike, then I’d say it’s worth the threat of hypothermia or slipping on ice to risk climbing in the off-season.

Do Climb it in the Off-Season

Late September and October would be “safest”, as there may be minimal snow, but if you want the trek to yourself, bring the right gear and see if you can get permission from the 5th station to go in November or December. Obviously, this can be rather dangerous, and I don’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have serious experience climbing on ice. Attempting the ascent early, in May or June, can be just as risky with the rainy season.

If you’re looking for an alternative path to the summit, check out the Fuji Mountain Race

3. Don’t Drink at the Lost in Translation Bar

The famous establishment is actually located at the top of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. Stick to the the gallery and coffee shop atop Roppongi Hills for just as impressive a view.

Do Stop By When Money Is No Object

I mean, would you normally pay 4000 yen for a fruit and cheese platter?

4. Don’t Pay an Absurd Amount of Money to Dress Like a Geisha

For the ladies out there (although I’ve heard they’ll do it for men, too), this is one activity many guesthouses and hostels offer throughout Kyoto. For about 10,000-30,000 yen (USD100-300), depending on the services offered and the time allowed, your face will be painted pale white, your hair arranged in traditional geisha style, and your body stuffed and folded into a slim silk kimono.

The purpose of all this? Photos to send home… the chance to see what geisha experience… sometimes you’re allowed to take a short walk outside in full regalia and watch the reactions of startled Japanese men and tourists thinking “Wow! A real geisha! Get the camera!” Unfortunately, it’s just not worth it; with foreign noses, eyes, and facial features, we simply look ridiculous. The areas in which you walk are well known by locals, and you can hardly expect a genuine reaction from another foreigner wasting money to “look Japanese”.

Do See The One Foreigner Who Can Pull It Off

American-born Sayuki, currently working in the Asakusa district of Tokyo: http://www.sayuki.net/

5. Don’t Travel Far and Wide for Cherry Blossoms

Imagine you’ve just flown into Tokyo one Sunday in April; those flowering trees that have inspired thousands of haiku and drunken hanami (viewing parties) are now in full bloom and ripe for the watching. Instantly, you think: “I’ve got to get to the best viewing spots in the country, quickly!” Many travelers opt to follow the spread of the sakura (cherry blossoms) from the south of Okinawa in February all the way to Hokkaido in May.

Do See Local Sakura

If you feel as though your current location is lacking in these wondrous plants, think again; every city, town, and prefecture in Japan has a great place to lay down a blanket, crack open an Asahi beer, and view the pedals falling as gently as snow. I’m not going to deny there are some great trees out there, but don’t feel pressured to rush out of town; cherry blossoms bloom for only one week, and even with reliable predictions, your scheduled holiday may have you arrive a few days before or after full bloom. Instead, take advantage of your present surroundings.

6. Don’t Restrict your WWII Studies to Hiroshima

There is more to the history of Japan during World War II than the Peace Museum, the A-Bomb Dome, and the Paper Crane Memorial in Hiroshima City. By all means, see every one of those places, but once you finish…


– Take the train over to Nagasaki and look at their Peace Park, the lesser visited of the two. Did you know Kokura was the original target on August 9th, but cloud cover caused the pilot to divert to Nagasaki?

– Really go off the beaten path with the Kamizake Museum in Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture. Hundreds of letters are on display, each from pilots writing their goodbyes to family memories prior to departure.

– Before you leave Tokyo, make sure to visit the Yasukuni War Memorial shrine, honoring the spirits of those fallen.

7. Don’t See Japan With Emerald Glasses

‘If you arrived in Paris or Rome and saw something like the new station you would be utterly revolted, but for most foreigners coming to Kyoto it merely whets their appetite to find the old Japan they know must be there. When they finally get to Honen-In Temple and see a monk raking the gravel under maple trees, they say to themselves, “Yes it does exist. I’ve found it!” And their enthusiasm for Kyoto ever after knows no bounds. The minute the walk out of Honen-In they’re back in the jumbly modern city, but it doesn’t impinge on the retina – they’re still looking at the dream.’
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr (quoting Mason Florence)

By this, I mean most newbies to Japan hold a kind of mysticism as a veil over their eyes. At some level we appreciate all the fancy robots and electronics in Akihabara, but more often that not, we want the “old Japan”: Zen temples with chanting monks, samurai warriors parading the street. The contrast to what we actually see upon landing in Tokyo – high speed trains, school girls in insanely short shorts – almost blinds us to what Japan has become…

The “old Japan”, the Japan in the movies you know and love, the Japan you dream about as being somehow removed from time and left in pristine historical condition…. that Japan has been fading from existence since the 1960’s.

Do Recognize The Signs of Insane Modernization

I’m not saying you can’t enjoy your holiday, sleep in a capsule hotel in Tokyo, and reap the benefits of modernization. Just be aware of some of the things Japan has given up to get to this point.

Kyoto, 1964: A steel eyesore, the city tower, is placed directly in front of the main train station, despite numerous protests from locals. Thus begins the dismantling of historic Kyoto; buildings no longer have to be shorter than ten feet, Zen temples have information loudspeakers installed for tourists, and power lines remain unburied.

Japanese coastline: Why leave sandy beaches alone when you’ve got concrete quotas to fill? Thus the implementation of tetrapods.

…designed to prevent erosion, but in fact increasing its likelihood. And don’t they look pretty?

I once conducted the following experiment. I filled a jar with plain water from the tap at my office in Tokyo, and then I put it on my desk. Since the water came from the city water-works system and contained chlorine, attempts to make crystals from the water failed.

I then asked for the help of five hundred people located throughout Japan. At the same time on the appointed day, they all sent positive thoughts to purify the water on my desk and then sent the message “Thank you” to the water.

As expected, the water changed and was able to form beautiful crystals. The chlorinated water from the tap had changed to pure water.

How could this have happened? I think you know the answer. The thoughts and words of five hundred people reached the water without regard for the borders of time and space.
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Masaru Emoto, The Secret Life of Water

Emoto is also the author of The Hidden Messages in Water, a book I had looked at briefly some years ago without really considering its significance. Due to my studies in Buddhism (and after reading Dan Brown’s latest thriller, The Lost Symbol), I find the ideas in this book to be some of the most overlooked and most important in human existence. And no, that’s not an exaggeration – books like these are considered by the mainstream to be too “out there” or junk science, but if you’d explore the concept for yourself over a given time, you too might be a “believer”.

As Brown says, imagine a grain of sand: pretty small and insignificant, right? We know it has mass, therefore it exerts a certain gravitational pull on nearby objects, but by itself, this effect is minimal. Now consider a beach full of these grains of sand: the mass of these millions of pieces now has the power to affect objects on a larger scale. Both Emoto and Brown’s characters have got it right:

Thoughts are just like these grains of sands, and we can see the effects of positive and negative thoughts on matter in the real world.

Why do doctors encourage positive thinking in terminal patients? How is it that someone’s soulmate can know if harm befalls the other when they’re separated by an ocean? Why should the shapes of crystals in water change according to the thoughts being directed at them? Why do followers of a particular religion seem to gain support quickly and with absolute devotion (it’s certainly not for the logic of their holy books)? Because thought has power outside of the mind, and for people thinking the same thoughts, the effect is exponential.

Emoto goes a bit further than this, exploring the crystals formed when water is exposed to positive and negative thoughts, writings, music, prayers from different religions, and when it is gathered from certain sources. I admit he goes a little over the edge (for me, at least) when discussing his ideas of water changing the world, but his heart is in the right place, and the research and pictures are fascinating.

I got an email from Kim Nguyen over at JapanesePod101.com asking to promote their site for readers interested in continuing their Japanese studies.

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New article from iloho is now up. Check it out at http://blog.iloho.com/older/2009/10/7/travel_tips_10_things_you/.

When you are travelling in Japan follow these simple guidelines to ensure that cultural misunderstandings (or worse) do not occur.

10) Misuse Your Shoes
Thresholds at businesses and all homes and apartments in Japan have a convenient place for you to store your shoes and don borrowed slippers for your journey. However, did you know you should never wear slippers on tatami mats? It’s also a huge cultural faux-pas to come out of the bathroom still wearing toilet slippers, as they’ve been rubbing on dirty linoleum (although this even slips Japanese minds from time to time).

9) Bathe in the Bathtub
The bathing culture in Japan is unparalleled. Even if I soak in a mineral pool in the backwoods of New Zealand, nothing will make me feel more cleansed inside and out than a soak in a traditional Japanese hot spring resort. Ignoring the fact the water is still hotter and contains more minerals than most hot pools abroad, Japanese bathing etiquette dictates one should shower thoroughly before entering the steaming bath; if you were to do otherwise in Japanese homes (as a guest you would be given the honour of bathing first) the family would have to completely drain the tub, clean out the ring, and refill. You’d probably just be kicked out if you brought soap and shampoo into the pool at a public bathhouse.

8) Fumble with Chopsticks
You don’t have to be able to pick up an individual grain of rice to use chopsticks properly. Rather, just be aware that there are a few things for which they were not meant to be used. First, even if you’re sharing dishes with a group, do not pass food from one set of chopsticks to another, as this is considered in bad taste. Second, when not using them, set your chopsticks across your plate or bowl as you would a knife; poking them out of your rice resembles two sticks of incense commonly used for a certain death ceremony… and why would you want to be reminded of that over a fine dinner?

7) Grope on a Train
Obviously this isn’t a mere misunderstanding of cultures if such an act were to occur, but even when visiting Japan and having nothing but pure intentions, one should be aware of the dangers. Women (and even men) have been fondled on crowded trains and often cannot trace the hands back to their owners. This has lead to women-only subway cars during peak travel times, and the police giving advice to young girls: seize the arm of your attacker and don’t let go until security sees his face. I only mention this because if you’re a foreigner riding a train in the land of the rising sun who knows absolutely no Japanese, and when disembarking you find a man or woman screaming “shijou!” or “chikan!”, respectively (the terms for female and male perverts), you’re essentially at the mercy of one individual who may have mistaken your desire to get a little bit of room on the car as blatant groping.

6) Choose the Wrong Seat
There’s a somewhat antiquated custom when it comes to eating out in groups. If you’re with some business colleagues, it’s better for a junior member (in terms of hierarchy, not age) to take the seat closest to the doorway or access point, the senior member the farthest away. The belief is that should an attack occur, the least experienced (thus the least valuable) will be killed first, giving the others time to mobilize and protect the higher-ups.

5) Show Strong Emotions
One of the most common mistakes a foreigner makes upon entering the Japanese business world is to openly express his frustration when the unexpected comes along… and it always comes along. Showing strong emotions like anger is a social death sentence in Japan; the only time someone might get away with it would be if he were seriously inebriated, or at least making the effort to get there. Tears, especially those of happiness, can be forgiven (even from men), but take care to keep your temper in check.

4) Blow Your Nose
Even out on the street when it’s sub-zero degree weather, blowing your nose in Japan is probably one of the rudest things you can do, even more so if you’re talking with someone face-to-face and take a moment to pull out your handkerchief. It’s the equivalent of asking someone to watch you use the toilet.

3) Yawn
This is a good policy for conversations around the world, but it really hits home in Japan. Whereas in the States or other countries one might dismiss a tired expression with a certain nonchalance or a chuckle (e.g. “crazy night on the town?”), in Japan you might as well slap your superior in the face to completely prove your desire not to listen.

2) When Listening…
I had an interview with an English school in Akita Prefecture not too long ago. As I was listening to the manager speak via Skype, I realised how out of practice I was at listening by Japanese standards. He spoke for only a few seconds at a time, each time taking my silence as an indication that the call must have been disconnected. Why? Because I failed to provide the appropriate guttural sounds: when speaking one-on-one with someone in Japan (group meetings can be an exception), it’s best to utter a few words every now and again to show you still have the speaker’s attention. A simple hai (yes), or so des ne (ah, I see) can work wonders.

1) Respect Yourself
Modesty is a virtue. I cannot count the number of times as an English teacher I gave high praise to certain young Japanese students, only to have their parents contradict me by saying something like “yes, but she’s terrible studying at home” or “no, you must be mistaken”. Disregarding or refusing complements in Japan is the only way to accept them graciously:

(in Japanese)
Me: Excuse me, but could you tell me the way to the nearest train station?
Japanese: Ooohhh! Your Japanese is so skillful!
Me: No, no, it’s nothing really.

By claiming you have no skills or any life experience exceeding that of another, you in fact raise their impression of you. If I were to refer to myself as “Turner-san” or respond to such praise of my language skills with “Thank you very much! I have been diligently studying for nine months!”, then I might be forgiven as an ignorant foreigner… but more likely marked as arrogant.