USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

October 1, 2014

Kindred Souls: The People of Japan

Filed under: Exploring,Uncategorized,Yamanaka Lake — Tags: — geajapan @ 2:19 pm

By Andy Gause

I encountered some fascinating people during my stay in Tokyo and Kyoto. The three mentioned below are prime examples of the types of people I had the opportunity to befriend in Japan.

Koenraad Hemelsoet - I met this scruffy-faced world traveler on the first night at the hotel. I was lounging on the porch, when he sat down to smoke a cigarette, drink Austrian beer, and read a French novella. I have never seen a more stereotypically ‘European’ man.

Over the next two weeks, I learned that Koenraad is a trilingual globe-trotter on vacation from his programming job in Belgium. He has two Masters and one Philosophy PhD (this dissertation was on Nietzsche, whom he frequently quoted), but admits that he still doesn’t know what to do with his life, beyond exploring the globe that is.

Most nights, we’d sit on the hotel porch reading and discuss the day’s events (usually the World Cup, remember he’s very European). One night, our conversation transitioned from ordinary small-talk into a heated discussion on the merits of nationalism and religion. We both shared similar world views, but with enough minor differences for a rousing debate. Next thing we know, it’s 3:30 in the morning and the hotel cashier is glaring at us like he wants us to leave, but can’t say anything. Koenraad was clearly a better debater, but he was gracious enough not to annihilate my opinions. Reasonable debate is a fine art, and all too rare to find. That nighttime conversation with Koenraad was an unique experience that I’ll treasure for quite a while.

Junki Mizuno - Junki was one of the generous and friendly Meiji students we encountered on the trip. Whenever the persistent rain or vacation exhaustion got me down, Junki was there with his beaming grin, ready to lift my spirits. He was always willing to take us to the best spots in Tokyo. Like the other Meiji students, he spoke excellent English and was beyond patient with my limited Japanese skills. I know I’ll stay in touch with Junki, and would love the opportunity to one day return the kindness and be as great a host to him, as he was to our group.

Junki and his constant grin

Junki and his constant grin

Rina Otake - Rina was the Mother Hen of the trip. She made it her mission to see that everyone had a great time. At Yamanaka Lake, she was one of the Meiji students in charge of planning our activities. She could always be seen prepping the meals, setting up the calligraphy station, and generally doing whatever was necessary for the trip. She worked vigilantly to plan group trips to Disney Sea, the Tokyo equivalent of California Adventure and the Studio Ghibli Museum. However, what stood out more than Rina’s drive, was her giddy demeanor and bubbly personality. She genuinely enjoyed facilitating our adventures and this joy was visible throughout the trip.

I’m glad we had a group leader as pleasant, prepared, and gracious as Rina. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t go on to great things as a politician or business leader.

En Dance Studio

Filed under: Uncategorized — geajapan @ 2:19 pm

By Kent Oya 

I picked up dancing during the fall of my sophomore year, and I’ve loved it ever since. Therefore, during this program, I jumped at the chance to visit one of the most famous dance studios in Japan: En Dance Studio in Shibuya.

en dance

En Dance Studio is home to many legends in the dance community, from the s**t kingz (shoji, kazuki, NOPPO, and oguri) to Koharu Sugawara. They were the dancers that fueled my passion to dance, and instead of watching them through Youtube videos, I finally had the chance to visit their studio in person.

Here are some of my favorite videos of them:

Unfortunately, Koharu and the s**t kingz members were not holding any workshops during the time we were in Tokyo, but I still wanted to experience the dance culture in Japan, so I signed up for a workshop held by Denzel Chisolm, a professional dancer from MOVEMENT LIFESTYLE in Los Angeles. I eagerly went to the studio on July 1st

En Dance Studio x MOVEMENT LIFESTYLE

En Dance Studio x MOVEMENT LIFESTYLE

And I got wrecked.

This was not surprising, as I am an intermediate dancer at best and the workshop was a master class, but the 40 other dancers who attended the class were absolutely amazing. I felt humiliated, yet motivated to become a better dancer. Hopefully, I will reach that level in a few years!

Check out the piece that I learned!

The dance cultures in Japan and America are rather different; I noticed a more serious atmosphere in Japan. No one was chatting with each other, even during stretching; they were there to learn from the teacher. I definitely felt a barrier between the teacher (Denzel) and the students. Meanwhile, the environment is more relaxed in America. During stretches, most people would be chatting with their friends and even with the choreographer. Here, the teacher is regarded as an equal, and the learning environment is casual. Nonetheless, the fact that a dancer from L.A. came to Japan just to teach is wonderful. Japan is well known for its isolationism and its distaste for foreigners, so the fact that this type of cross-cultural exchange is happening is a great step for both Japan and the United States.

Japan-exclusive MOVEMENT LIFESTYLE T-shirt!

Japan-exclusive MOVEMENT LIFESTYLE T-shirt!

Tokyo Disneyland

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — Tags: — geajapan @ 2:18 pm

By Stephanie Liang

Tokyo Disneyland was absolutely magical. Although I did choose a very busy day to go, I still had an amazing time.

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Main gate

One of the differences I noticed between the U.S. Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland was the food. Despite the plethora of Mickey-shaped foods available at both Disneylands, there were various types of foods that catered to Japanese tastes as opposed to the American palette, including pork gyouza (fried dumplings) and mochi space invaders. Turkey legs are famous at the U.S. Disneyland for their enormous size and succulent meat. Although turkey legs were also served at Tokyo Disneyland, their size fit Japanese preferences and was simply the average size of a normal turkey leg, but the quality of the meat was on par. They also served various flavors of popcorn, ranging from the typical flavors such as sea salt and caramel, to exotic flavors like  strawberry, curry, and soy sauce with butter. One of my favorite foods of the day was this Mickey-shaped waffle topped with strawberry sauce and condensed milk.

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Mickey Mouse shaped park food!

Architecturally, the two Disneyland parks are almost exactly the same. Cinderella’s castle stood in the middle of the park, and popular rides such as A Small World After All, Alice’s Teacups,  Dumbo’s Flight, Space Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean were scattered around the park.

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I’ll believe that when elephants fly!

I could easily detect societal differences between the Japanese Disneyland goers and their American counterparts. In America, everyone squeezes into every tight crevice when waiting in line, while in Japan, people prefer to keep some distance between each other so that the lines are not as long as they appear. Despite the long wait times and the intense humidity, people were very polite and mostly kept to themselves. Japanese Disney goers also get to enjoy certain areas fenced off specifically for sitting. Many people brought their own towels and sat in what looked like lines of people. In addition, Disneyland Tokyo was especially accommodating to foreigners. Multiple times, we asked to be seated in the front car to get the full visual experience of each ride, and every time the Disneyland Tokyo staff were very understanding. We actually noticed this throughout our stay in Tokyo; the customer service in Japan is impeccable in just about any establishment, because Japanese society works towards providing a good experience to visitors and leaving a good impression.

The visual effects of each Disney ride were absolutely astounding. In the Haunted Mansion ride, for example, apparitions were realistic holograms dancing around the ballroom, and the robot in Pirates of the Caribbean looked exactly like the movie’s actual actors. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and in my opinion, it even surpassed the technology found in the U.S. Disneyland.

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The floats lit up the the night sky.

The pyrotechnic show was also equally amazing, but it was almost identical to that found in the states. We watched a parade of magical floats and a giant fireworks show in front of Cinderella’s castle.

Overall, my experience was magical, which can be expected of any Disney resort, but I did not expect to learn so much about Japanese culture in what is essentially a “Western” amusement park. It seems like the Japanese have adapted Disneyland into their own culture, and the park serves as a metaphor for all of Japan’s great adaptations that, throughout time, become uniquely Japanese.

 

September 15, 2014

Japan’s Plastic Food

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Tokyo,Travel — geajapan @ 1:46 pm

By Janet Hu

During our stay in Japan, we had many opportunities to try all the great food! In fact, it was always hard to choose what to eat because of all the varieties that are available. Everything always looks special and delicious. Wandering around the streets and food courts, I was particularly intrigued by the “fake” food replicas that can be seen in many shop windows and display cases. Most restaurants display these plastic food replicas in order to attract customers. Moreover, each restaurant has its own custom-made food replicas, which are apparently handmade to look just like the actual dishes offered by the restaurant.

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Examples of plastic food replicas

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Careful, they’re all fake!

These plastic food replicas have their own interesting history. After World War II, many foreigners came to Japan to participate in the reconstruction process. Due to the language barrier, however, they found it difficult to understand the menus at Japanese restaurants. Therefore, Japanese artisans came up with a way to both display dishes and make them look appealing at the same time: make food sample replicas that won’t spoil and always look appetizing. At first, food sample replicas were made from wax, but because the colors gradually faded when exposed to sunlight, artisans switched to plastic materials instead. Today, food sample replicas are so realistic that I can barely tell they are actually fake!

Here’s a short clip of a food sample artist making some very real-looking lettuce:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tybdEZPZQPk

I was surprised by the sheer variety of plastic food samples available in Japan. There are samples of basically any food you can image, including curry rice, ramen, sushi, fruit, and even beer! We were lucky to visit a street near Asakusa that has become famous for its high concentration of plastic food sample shops. It is called Kappabashi Dougu Street (合羽橋道具街). In addition to the literally hundreds of different kinds of food samples being sold in the many shops along the street, you can also find almost every imaginable kind of tool and equipment used by the restaurant industry on this street. One thing I noticed after handling a few of the plastic food samples was hat food samples tend to be lighter than the weight of the real dishes they represent. This street is definitely an interesting place for those who like Japanese food and are planning to make a souvenir-hunting trip in Tokyo!

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Walking along Kappabashi Dougu Street

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Inside one of the many plastic food shops along Kappabashi Dougu Street

In Japan, the craftsmanship of food samples has come to be considered an art form. In fact, some of the best samples are even on display in foreign museums. I find it fascinating how Japan tries to communicate with people in such visual ways. For instance, the warning signs on subways, trains, and buses are usually displayed with accompanying images, which make the signs very easy to understand; the images allow people to receive and understand the information in a very efficient way. Plastic food samples are of course another example. Customers can quickly and clearly understand a restaurant’s menu just by looking at its display of food samples. Moreover, it is also a smart advertising strategy.

Up to the Top! Tokyo Skytree

Filed under: Exploring,Tokyo,Travel — geajapan @ 1:45 pm

By Janet Hu

Our group first went to the Tokyo Skytree on a rainy day, so we didn’t go up to the top. However, I was very excited to go up the second time we visited Skytree and the Solamachi shops at its base.

Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting tower standing in the Sumida area of Tokyo. It is also close to Asakusa. The full height is 634 meters (2,080 ft.), which makes Skytree the tallest broadcasting tower in the world. It reached its full height on March 2011, replacing the older Tokyo Tower (height 333 meters, or 1,093 ft.) as the most prominent structure in Tokyo. In fact, its height of 634 meters has its own meaning: the figures 6 (mu), 3 (sa), and 4 (shi) can be read together as “Musashi,” which is the name of the historic area in Tokyo where Skytree now stands.

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Skytree is designed to be a place where tradition and future meet. The central design concept is “the creation of city scenery transcending time: a fusion of traditional Japanese beauty and neo-futuristic design.” It even has its own color—Skytree White, which gives the structure a delicate blue glow.

Solamachi, the big shopping complex sitting at the base of Skytree, is a great place for buying souvenirs, shopping, and eating. There is also a big Studio Ghibli shop. Compared to Skytree itself, Solamachi is more crowded. The fourth floor is a good choice for those planning to pick up some nice souvenirs during their visit. They have a Yomiuri Giants baseball team gift shop, fine Japanese handkerchief shops, and specialized chopstick shops, among others.

For those interested in ascending to the top of Tokyo Skytree, there are two possible options. You can go to the Tembo Deck, which is at a height of 350 meters (1,148 ft). On this level, there is the Skytree Café as well as the Skytree Restaurant 634, from which you can enjoy a beautiful panorama of the Tokyo skyline. A ticket for the Tembo Deck is 2,060 Japanese yen. I was amazed by the view from the top of Tokyo Skytree.

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View from the Tokyo Skytree Tembo Deck

Once on the Tembo Deck, you can then purchase a ticket for the upper level, which is called the Tembo Galleria. This level is at a height of 450 meters (1,476 ft.). It costs another 1,030 yen to go up to this higher level. The elevator going up to the Tembo Galleria has glass walls, so you can see the outside view while the elevator is going up. I was lucky because I was the only one in the elevator when I went up to the upper level.

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In elevator going up to Tembo Galleria

In the Tembo Galleria

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View from inside Tembo Galleria (1/2)

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View from inside Tembo Galleria (2/2)

While I wish the weather had been a little better, I was still very impressed by what I saw on my second trip to the Tokyo Skytree. It was great fun to go up to the Tembo Galleria.

 

 

 

The “Trap” of Limited Edition Goods

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Travel,Uncategorized — geajapan @ 1:43 pm

By Lisa Peng 

When shopping in Japan, one will always encounter products with the sign gentei shouhin (限定商品), or “limited edition goods,” on them. This sign indicates that the products are only sold in a certain region, during a certain period of time, or under certain other conditions, such as the special sweets known as yatsuhashi (八ツ橋) that are only sold in Kyoto, fruit-flavored drinks that are sold only in the summer, Hello Kitty dolls dressed in special costumes that are sold only in Hiroshima, and special-shaped snacks that can only be found at the Tokyo SkyTree. Because of their scarcity and uniqueness, these goods give people an impulse to buy them. People think that if they don’t buy the goods right away, it is likely that they might never be able to find them for sale again. At the same time, these limited edition goods also create a great way for merchants to trap their customers into buying goods that are not actually necessary. For instance, I was often tempted to buy a summer-limited-edition plum-flavored juice (see photo) over other juice options even though it did not taste any better than the others. I only bought it because I knew I could get the other flavors at another time, or even outside of Japan.

Regional (Kyoto, Kyoto Station, Tokyo, and Sky Tree) limited products

Regional limited products (Kyoto Station, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Sky Tree)

Seasonal limited products (desserts, alcoholic drink, juice, and fries)

Seasonal limited products (desserts, alcoholic drink, juice, and potato chips)

Although these limited edition goods were created by businesses to boost sales, they still show some unique features of Japan. First, Japan is a country with four clearly-divided seasons. Thus, limited goods are often based on the seasons, because the climate and scenery vary greatly in each season. For example, many spring-limited products focus on cherry blossoms, while summer-limited products tend to focus on green tea, watermelon, ice, and fireworks. Second, although Japan is a small country, every major region is relatively isolated because of the country’s mountainous geography. As a result, each region was able to develop a unique culture, which has created a habit among those traveling to different regions of bringing limited, or area-specific, gifts back to give to their friends and families. In this way, regional limited goods are a popular way of advertising an area’s unique culture, while also serving as great gifts.

September 4, 2014

Kanpai! (Cheers)

Filed under: Culture,Exploring — geajapan @ 2:56 pm

By Benjamin Surbrook

One of my favorite things to do in Japan is participate in 飲み会 (nomikai). What is a nomikai, you ask? Well, the two Chinese characters in this word mean “drink” and “gather,” and thus the word essentially refers to a “drinking gathering.” Nomikai typically take place at izakaya (居酒屋, or Japanese-style bar), where everyone sits around a table, or if you have a big enough group, in a Japanese-style room with tatami mats.

A drink and an appetizer

Typical nomikai drink and appetizer

The reason I like nomikai so much is that it represents a uniquely Japanese experience that provides for a better social environment than its American counterpart. In most American bars, you go either alone or in a small group, which makes it harder to bond with larger groups. American bars are also not conducive to group bonding, because they are usually quite loud. At the other end of the spectrum, most American restaurants are not necessarily places where you can be alone with a larger group and be somewhat rowdy. This is why izakaya are so perfect; you can bond with all of your friends in an environment that not only accommodates you, but seems to be designed specifically for that purpose. (Also, we learned a LOT of fun games from the Japanese students, many of which I plan on exporting back to America.)

A group picture in a Japanese-style room

Group picture in a Japanese-style room

It’s easy to like nomikai; the drinks are cheap, the food is good, and the memories are unforgettable. Moreover, I can guarantee that when I return to Japan, I will be trying out as many izakaya as I can.

My Experience with Fashion in Japan

Filed under: Culture,Exploring — geajapan @ 2:46 pm

By Kelli Kosaka

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As I was walking around Meiji University, watching students pass me by, one thought struck me: Fashion is extremely important in the city. Nearly every girl and boy I saw on campus was dressed with purpose. I thought of how the average USC student dresses and was reminded that even though our campus is considered relatively fashionable, more than a few students in the crowd dress in sweatpants and T-shirts. That was definitely not the case here. Girls often not only had impeccable makeup, but also outfits that were perfectly matched and put together. Shapes were classic and feminine.

Immediately, I wanted to go out and shop around the Tokyo area. I do an average amount of shopping back home and figured it was okay to do a little more than average here. Then, in the department stores, I discovered something quite peculiar.

Women’s clothes and accessories were nice, yes, but they often lacked a certain level of uniqueness. No matter the store, almost every blouse was in a pastel shade, and almost every print was either polka dot, stripe, or gingham. Skirts were flouncy and ruffled. Jewelry was delicate and dangly. The feminine beauty ideal, I discovered, is strong in Japan.

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Even purses tended to look similar. I stopped by the popular brand, Samantha Thavasa, on numerous occasions over the course of the trip and found that most of the bags, even from the brand’s other lines, tended to cater to the same market—twenty-something-year-olds. When targeting that age group, I found that girly and dainty styles trump all others.

I thought of a comment a Japanese friend once made to me regarding fashion in Japan. She had mentioned that nearly everything was good quality, but individual items—it didn’t matter what brand—tended to resemble each other.

I don’t view this as necessarily a bad aspect of Japanese culture, but a telling one. In our EASC-360 class, we covered Japanese cultural norms and standards. One of the topics we continuously touched on was the idea of the individual versus the group in Japan. Here, it’s usually the group that is valued more than the individual. Conformity is not something that is sought after in Japan, but it is still seen in many aspects of life, including fashion.

There are some exceptions—some stores I visited in Shibuya and Harajuku offered styles that were a lot less feminine—but it’s not a stretch to say that what the clothing market offers young adult women is limited.

September 3, 2014

Visiting a Cat Cafe

Filed under: Culture,Exploring — geajapan @ 3:04 pm

By Kelli Kosaka

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During our second week in Tokyo, we were able to visit a place frequented by many past Global East Asia participants—a cat café. This particular one was located in Akihabara in a tall, plain building situated alongside a narrow alleyway.

Along the way, cute handmade signs adorned with pictures of cats pointed us in the right direction, and we could barely contain our growing excitement. After squeezing through a few unusually steep stairways, we arrived at the entrance and were greeted by the shop owner, a slight-framed woman in her thirties. We then washed our hands and were free to play with the cats in the two-story café for an hour.

What amazed me was the demeanor of the cats—nearly all of them were quite sweet, but a little fatigued. We suspected it was due to the time of our arrival; we came to the café around four o’clock and realized that many customers had probably visited the place before us and tired the cats out.

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Nonetheless, we all spent the hour petting the cats, taking pictures, following them around the place, and dangling various toys in their direction. Even if some of the cats were shy, they were still adorable to look at. What surprised me was the size of the café—it had more than a few rooms with various themes, although the cats tended to spend most of their time in the main entryway and the adjacent room. The little sofas and chairs were also comfortable, affording the perfect place to relax.

These animal cafes, contrary to popular belief, seem to cater to a niche community within Japan, and while the Meiji students were familiar with such establishments, none of them were regulars. One student even told us it was his first time to go to an animal cafe.

When our hour was over, we each paid 1000 yen and were, overall, pleased with our experience.

Vending Machines: The Representative of Modern Japan

Filed under: Culture,Exploring — geajapan @ 2:51 pm

By Cody Uyeda

It seems that no matter where you go in Japan, there is always a vending machine stocked full of refreshing beverages standing ready to go, right where you need it, be it at a subway station, two steps outside your hotel, on a boat, or tucked away in every little corner and alleyway you can think of. This phenomenon of availability benefits anyone and everyone, from students and city workers to stressed salarymen, and the ability to always purchase a water, coffee, tea, or soda of your choice in less than 30 seconds makes the vending machine a modern marvel of efficiency and independence. Thus, it is in many ways a symbol for modern Japan, and the culture of an effective, visually aesthetic, fast-paced life.

A row of vending machines.

Row of vending machines.

Something I’ve noticed is that I’ve yet to find a Japanese vending machine that has failed to work, or see one that is actually out of stock of more than one out of the 15 to 25 different kinds of drinks each one offers. Even when tucked away in the most obscure parking lots and alleys, each and every Japanese vending machine is always somehow miraculously stocked, cleaned, and in perfect functioning condition. This really makes the Japanese vending machine stand out compared to the U.S., where I am very used to seeing out of stock, seldom used vending machines in odd, out-of-the-way places that are so unappealing I’d never want to use them. Also, Japanese vending machines dispense drinks faster, have more variety, and have fewer problems than any U.S. vending machine I’ve ever used, and they are also faster than just about any cashier at a traditional store. These advantages, coupled with the fact that they are almost everywhere, make the Japanese vending machine ideally suited to people on the go who need things to be fast, convenient, and always available.

Vending machine on the boat to Miyajima island!

Vending machine on the boat to Miyajima island!

They are everywhere…even in random alleys!

They are everywhere… even in random alleys!

The presentation of the product in Japanese vending machines is also key to what makes even the most unfamiliar drink look more appealing than many of the most well known items in a U.S. machine. Japanese vending machines turn the drinks from just a product to an element of design and display. The drinks are lined up in a window to highlight each and every one equally, as well as display the sheer variety available, as though you are gazing at a special storefront window designed just for those drinks alone, and you know exactly what you are getting as soon as you press a button. In this way, they become little mini stores in themselves, integrating aesthetically and efficiently with their environment. In contrast, American vending machines tend to have little aesthetic appeal, using either cheesy images or showing a much more limited selection of drinks casually lined up inside, as though how they look or their individual appeal doesn’t matter, which turns such vending machines into eyesores rather than enticers. Japanese vending machines use the power of visual aesthetics to make their drinks appetizingly beautiful and unique, while U.S. vending machines tend to treat their products like common commodities that exist solely for the purpose of selling a product, rather than trying to make the experience appealing or pleasing.

The beautiful aesthetics of presentation.

The beautiful aesthetics of Japanese vending machine presentation.

In addition, in the U.S. it is almost an expectation that a vending machine now and then will simply swallow your money and fail to dispense anything, or even worse, attempt to dispense the item but have it get stuck halfway off the rack, unable to be removed from the machine. In Japanese vending machines, however, these problems don’t seem to exist. You can’t see the internal workings of Japanese vending machines the way you can with U.S. ones, which did make me uneasy the first time I used one, because I was almost expecting the drink to get stuck somewhere inside and never know what happened to it. However, that has never been the case, which further enhances this image of efficiency. The ability of Japanese vending machines to function perfectly every single time is what makes them so useful; if they were to have the same number of defects and failures that U.S. vending machines tend to have, they would likely be far less prevalent than they are today, because in Japan’s fast-paced culture, ineffectiveness and inefficiency are quickly replaced.

Janet using the ever-convenient vending machines in Kyoto.

Janet using the ever-convenient vending machines in Kyoto.

What makes these vending machines uniquely Japanese, though, is that they represent total efficiency in the most unobtrusive space- and time-saving method possible. The concept of the Japanese vending machine centers on making the most of the smallest space possible while not sacrificing any variety or efficiency in the process. In fact, it actually seems to facilitate the use of space, as vending machines always seem to fit nicely and compactly into wherever they are placed, regardless of how arbitrary the actual space itself is. Thus, in conjunction with its uniquely beautiful aesthetics and track record of nearly flawless functioning, the Japanese vending machine is indeed one of the best and most prevalent symbols of modern Japan.

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