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Archive for December, 2009

Creating Life Experiences: How to Get the Most Out of Your Travel

December 28, 2009 3 comments

This is a list of personal recommendations, based on my own travel experiences and the advice of others (professional and otherwise). Many of them apply to travel in general. Following these tips will help you experience life-changing journeys and discover not only more about the world, but about yourself.

  • Travel cheap: This is not just a budgeting tip. Traveling cheap lets you see the things normal people see, and following more conventional routes reveals the “real” Japan that you might otherwise miss. I personally do not recommend bus tours and the like run by the big companies, unless you want to relive elementary-school field trips. In fact, packaged tours are usually more expensive and less fun than tours you can plan yourself by doing a little research.
  • …but don’t plan everything: In other words, leave room for the unexpected. A trip where everything goes as planned is like visiting Chinatown and saying you went to China. Research travel times, locations, and create a reasonable schedule of things you want to see each day, as well as a list of other things you may want to see. Most importantly, do not feel the need to stick to that schedule. If something down a side street catches your eye as you walk, go take a look. If you want to linger at the zen garden and ponder your thoughts an hour longer, do it. Trying to orchestrate an experience too closely causes it to become shallow.
  • Try things you wouldn’t otherwise do: Especially if you are an introvert, this is a perfect chance to try things you wouldn’t otherwise. Nobody knows you there, and you do not live there, so try coming out of your shell and let the experience change you. Travel is not just about seeing something new, but about letting yourself grow. Note that I am not recommending doing anything indecent, illegal, obnoxious, rude, etc.–don’t forget to use common sense. And don’t forget that you are a guest in Japan.
  • Forget what’s going on at home: You will get the most out of your experience if you leave your worries and daily concerns behind as much as possible (this includes checking e-mail, updating blogs, etc.). Use the chance to not only relax, but immerse yourself fully in a fascinating new world.
  • Stay awake on trains: Some of the most beautiful and interesting sights you see will be from the train window. Get enough sleep in the hotel, and stay awake on the train (or bus).
  • Rent a bicycle: Particularly in rural areas, getting around by bicycle lets you see hidden-away things you would otherwise never have the chance to see otherwise. It also gives you more opportunities to meet interesting people. Not to mention exercise never hurts. Bicycle rental is cheap, and shops are generally easy to find.
  • Don’t just hit tourist traps: I recommend going to small attractions or simply roaming around without a purpose every once and a while. Going to Kansai and just visiting Kyoto and Himeji Castle, for example, is like going to Paris and only seeing only the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The best experiences I’ve had came from walking down random streets, taking small side paths, and visiting small, family-run restaurants and shops.
  • Try to speak Japanese: The ability to speak the language of the country you are visiting enhances the experience by a huge degree. By speaking only English, you are limiting yourself to what has been translated and people who can speak English, which means you are not really seeing Japan for Japan. Take a few weeks to study if you have time, or try out a few guidebook phrases when you have the opportunity–Japanese people love to praise foreigners with terrible Japanese in particular. And at the risk of sounding too preachy: disillusion yourself of the belief that everyone in the world knows English and nobody minds having to use it. It’s more consider to at least try to speak the country’s langauge and respect its culture, as opposed to expecting them to accomodate you–even if you can only say “konnichiwa” and “arigato,” you will be respected for trying.
  • Eat local specialty foods: Every region of Japan and most cities and towns have their own specialty foods. You will not only get a wide sampling of Japanese cuisine, but have a richer travel experience, if you try local specialties along the way. It also makes picking a menu item simple!
  • Go out drinking: There are few better ways to meet and talk to locals than getting drunk with them. Research local bars if possible before setting out on your journey, and follow the recommendations of other expatriates in Japan.
  • Stay at an onsen (hot spring): I know it’s probably scary to think of getting naked around other people, but hot spring baths are one of the most wonderful parts of Japan, and they are pretty much everywhere. Schedule one night at a hotel, ryokan, or resort with hot spring baths (or even just regular shared baths) and enjoy yourself–outdoor baths in the fall and winter are particularly lovely. Some hotels have the option of using kashikiri-buro, which are reserved baths you can use privately with family, friends or loved ones for a set amount of time. Just remember: wash yourself thoroughly before entering bath, as the bath is for soaking only.

Hideyoshi

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I would like to highly recommend the book Hideyoshi by Mary Elizabeth Berry. It is the best academic work I have read on Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the most fascinating figures in the history of Japan and the world who made Osaka his base of power and played a crucial role in developing it into a thriving merchant town.
Hideyoshi was one of the three unifiers of Japan (the second, following the terrifying reign of Oda Nobunaga), and he brought together essentially the whole country in only a few years. Hideyoshi set a system in place that Tokugawa Ieyasu, who betrayed him and his son to take power after Hideyoshi’s death, would polish and use to usher in one of the most prosperous, stable, and culturally rich periods in Japanese history, the Edo Period (1600-1868).
Berry, who unfortunately has passed away, was one of the most talented Japanese historians of our time, and she not only spent a lot of time studying Hideyoshi, but Kyoto as well (which is where Hideyoshi spent most of his time when not on military or diplomatic campaigns around Japan). Hideyoshi, and his son and heir Hideyori, are two historical figures that are inseparably part of Osakan culture even today, and given the lack of English-language scholarship concerning Osaka and Hideyoshi, I consider Berry’s well-written and in-depth Hideyoshi a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Japanese culture on a deeper level. I can only hope that more historians will continue to write about the Toyotomi, and that a good book on Hideyori will also be written in the near future.

Hikari Renaissance Holiday Light Displays

December 13, 2009 3 comments

The winter holiday season is here, and Osaka’s Hikari Renaissance light displays and events have begun! Christmas season is a time for romance in Japan, so this is the perfect chance to take someone special out for a walk by the river and the grand old buildings of Nakanoshima. It can also be fun for expats who miss the holiday cheer of home.

Aside from the lights, there is a large Christmas tree on display, choirs singing, and a musical performance with amazing visuals projected on the wall of the Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library (don’t miss this!). The Osaka University of Arts’ musical groups will also put on a pop music concert. And numerous open-air food stalls are set up on the east end of Nakanoshima Park and at various spots along the riverbank. Finally, there are numerous limited-time, breathtaking river cruises operating at night in illuminated boats around Nakanoshima and other parts of town.

The lights can be seen every night from 5:00 to 10:00 PM, from December 1st through 25th (although the main events are from December 12th). Most of the lights and shows are located near city hall and Kokaido, as well as throughout Nakanoshima Park. The best way to get here  is via subway or Keihan rail lines: get off the train at Yodoyabashi, Kitahama, Naniwabashi or Oebashi Station. The display on western Nakanoshima is most easily reached from Nakanoshima Station (Keihan Nakanoshima Line). If you happen to be near the aquarium (Osakako Station on the Chuo Subway Line), or in Chayamachi (near Hankyu Umeda Station), stop by and check out the lights there also.

Visit Hikari Renaissance’s English-language site for details, river cruise times, and maps.

Horai

December 6, 2009 2 comments

Horai (蓬莱), just one of the many successful businesses born in Osaka, is a popular Chinese food chain. Most visitors will notice the 551 Horai booths set up in stations, which sell Horai’s most popular product, butaman–a steamed pork bun, a food made from dough filled with pork and other ingredients. The Horai name has become known all over Japan since the company’s founding in 1945, and many visitors from outside the Kansai area will buy Horai’s butaman as omiyage (souvenirs/gifts) to take home to their families and coworkers. It is said the “551 Horai” name comes from the original phone number of the company, which was also 551. Outside of its restaurants, Horai’s products are not only sold at numerous major and minor train stations, but in supermarkets and department stores all over Japan, and they can be bought fresh or as frozen foods. Horai also sell ice candy, which is popular during Kansai’s humid summers.

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The Escalator Conundrum: Osaka Right, Tokyo Left

December 1, 2009 8 comments

If you have visited Japan, perhaps you have noticed that people tend to pay attention to where they stand on an escalator: one side is for standing, one side is for walking. Now, if you live in Japan, you’ve surely figured out which side to stand on and which side to walk on…but have you really? While it is common knowledge to most Japanese, it may not be widely known to others that Kansai (especially Osaka) and Kanto have different escalator rules. My first sojourn in Japan was in Tokyo, and I learned to stand on the left and walk on the right; when I came to Osaka for the first time, I was confused to find that people here stand on the right and walk on the left. This tendency persists in the vicinity of and to the west of Osaka, and the Tokyo rules apply all around eastern Japan (as far as I know).

I have asked many people why this occurs, but nobody had any idea, so I searched the interwebs in Japanese and English and found the following theories:

  • During the Tokugawa Period, Edo (now Tokyo) was a city of samurai, who preferred to be on the left so they could draw their swords easily. Osaka, on the other hand, was a city of rich merchants, who preferred to be on the right so they could protect their money and valuables. This was, of course, before escalators existed, and most samurai probably didn’t walk around looking for chances to cut people down. Not to mention many other holes in this theory.
  • Osaka adopted the “American style” and Tokyo adopted the “British style.” I don’t know about the British, but I know that we have no established customs for using escalators in the United States. Furthermore, Tokyo is the one with more American cultural influence, not Osaka.
  • Because Osaka wanted to be different.

The last possibility seems to be the least unlikely one, as Osaka and Tokyo are rivals, culturally and otherwise. But in the end, it’s still a total mystery to me. Additional theories are welcome.

At least you now know how to spot a Tokyoite in Kansai.

BONUS WALKING TIP: In Tokyo, bikes dodge pedestrians. In Osaka, you’d better move or be prepared to die when you hear that bike bell ding.