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

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.

Keisuke Honda: The Most Familiar Face in Tokyo

Filed under: Culture,Exploring — geajapan @ 2:33 pm

By Cody Uyeda

As June was World Cup season for soccer, in a country like Japan, with such a love for its national team, the much televised matches were shown in literally every café, bar, and restaurant in Tokyo, where we had just begun our stay. However, the actual games aside, as we walked the streets of Tokyo, from Shibuya to Akihabara, and even other cities such as Yokohama, one face stood out above all others as the singular symbol for Japanese soccer: Keisuke Honda. The star player of Japan’s 2014 team, with titles such as MVP under his belt, coupled with a uniquely rugged handsomeness and head of spiky bleach-blonde hair, Honda commands a presence that seems to jump out of every image.

Honda in Akihabara- advertising a line of razors.

Honda in Akihabara, advertising a line of razors.

However, when I first arrived in Japan, I had no idea the World Cup was even happening. What started this strange introduction to Honda, then, was a trip to Akihabara, where I saw his face advertising a line of razors. Soon after, at a local konbini (convenience store), I saw his face not only on the front of every sports paper and magazine, but also on a comic book and a poster and water bottles advertising the Aquarius water brand. I had no idea who Honda was, but I had never seen someone advertised so prevalently on so many different products before, so it became an interesting journey thereafter to find everything he was advertised on, and it was amazing the sheer number of things I found.

Ads clockwise from top left- beer, Mizuno jacket, shoes, Diamond cologne, and a Mercedes car.

Ads, clockwise from top left: Kirin beer, Mizuno jacket, shoes, Diamond cologne, and a Mercedes car.

Some of the things I found him on were a cologne, a towel for the Japanese soccer team, a Mercedes car ad, Aquarius water bottles (in three different collectible images), Aquarius posters and cups, on a game in an arcade, on a poster for a Mizuno jacket, on giant billboards in Shibuya for both beer and Mintia mints, on the cans of two different brands of beer, on ads for both pants and shirts in Uniqlo, a sports shoe ad, a comic book magazine, and on the covers of at least five different sports related magazines and newspapers. In short, he really was literally everywhere.

Ads clockwise from top left- comic book, Mintia mints, Uniqlo pants, Uniqlo shirt, and sports magazine.

Ads, clockwise from top left: comic book, Mintia mints, Uniqlo pants, Uniqlo shirt, and sports magazine.

Aquarius water- three versions of Honda!

Aquarius water, sporting three versions of Honda!

What really made Honda interesting to me, though, was how powerful he became through the strategic power of advertising. In a place like Japan, which utilizes every available space as an area to display and advertise, this method of constant visual repetition, prevalence, and recognition created a gradual sense of connection to him every time I saw his face somewhere in the city. I felt that I was slowly becoming more and more acquainted with him, even though I’d never watched a single soccer game in which he played. I believe this was exactly the point though–to quickly and aggressively foster a devoted connection to Japanese soccer through Honda in the most effective way possible by complete saturation of the visual landscape, where, no matter where you are, Honda’s image is always nearby as a constant reminder. Also, this method of association made me more drawn to the products he was featured on, as they took on an intangible sense of Honda/Japanese-ness that made them somehow more appealing, as though through these items, I was buying into not just Honda, but also the Japanese team, and by extension, a unique aspect of Japanese pop culture itself.

Ads clockwise from top left- Aquarius billboard, Aquarius poster, Aquarius water bottles, Beer, and towel for Japanese team.

Ads, clockwise from top left: Aquarius billboard, Aquarius poster, Aquarius water bottles, Kirin Beer, and Japanese team towel.

However, after Japan’s team was out of the running for the World Cup, it was interesting how quickly Honda’s face disappeared. In the U.S., I’m used to seeing ads and promotional items up long after the relative event has passed, but in Japan, within just days after Japan’s team had failed to advance to the next stage, Honda had already become immensely less prevalent. I visited a store in SkyTree mall barely a week after going there and seeing an entire section devoted to Honda and the Japanese soccer team, only to find all the merchandise gone, and the entire section dismantled and filled with products for a new program. Also, in every konbini I went into, the special Aquarius promotional water that Honda’s image had been on was the only drink missing, when just a week or so before, those bottles of water were practically ubiquitous. I felt that this really spoke to the Japanese advertising mentality, where even an entire empire of endorsements and imagery can be built up and then dismantled on command, and how this is driven relentlessly by the push for the most up-to-date things. As valuable and loved as Honda is in Japan, after Japan lost, most things associated with him or the national team quickly became “old news” in this sense, and seemed to thus become relegated to the periphery.

Only time will tell if Honda will emerge again on the billboards and windows of Japan as the symbol for Japanese soccer, but what is clear is that should Honda emerge again as the chosen player to advertise, you can expect without a doubt to find him on every corner, store, and billboard, the ultimate reminder of Japanese advertising, and the power of an image.

September 2, 2014

The Cleanest Country

Filed under: Culture,Exploring — geajapan @ 11:32 am

By Sarah Anne Nakamura

While living in Japan for a month, I did not get sick once, which I believe is because Japan is the cleanest place I have ever traveled to. There is no garbage on the streets, no gum on the sidewalks, very few door handles to touch, sanitary wipes before every meal, and no outdoor shoes inside the rooms. This is a reflection of the Japanese culture itself. Japan is very efficient and organized, and cleanliness is one aspect through which these qualities are reflected.

While staying at Sakura Hotel in Tokyo, I remember eating breakfast in the lobby one morning when the staff started putting away the postcards on display. I thought they were replacing them, but it turns out they were just preparing to wipe down the postcard stand. After meticulously cleaning every section of the stand, they placed all the postcards back in their original positions. I thought this was very interesting and something you would never find in the United States. The hotel also washes its doors and windows almost every day, as well as clean the showers and restrooms. The hotel we stayed at was very clean, but so was the country we stayed in.

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Our first weekend in Japan, we traveled to Yamanaka Lake with 20 Meiji student supporters. During our retreat, we stayed at a gasshuku, which is a term used for Japanese retreat facilities. It was very traditional, so we were asked to turn in our outdoor shoes and exchange them for indoor slippers. In addition to wearing indoor slippers, we were asked to take off our shoes before entering our own rooms because, while staying at the gasshuku, we slept on tatami mats. One thing I noticed about Yamanaka Lake right away was the lack of hand soap in the bathroom. I later learned that it is quite common to not have soap in bathrooms in Japan.

An example of an Oshibori

Example of an oshibori

Even though there were many places with soap in Japan, I always had the opportunity to wash my hands before eating a meal because almost every food establishment provides oshibori, or Japanese pre-moistened hand towels. In the United States, I wash my hands before every meal, so having a personal hand towel was amazing. In the winter they give out warm towels, and in the summer they give our cool towels. Even at convenient stores, they would provide a free moist towel, even if you were just buying a single container of yogurt.

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Although Japan is very clean, I was very surprised by the lack of garbage cans in Tokyo as well as Kyoto. I would find myself carrying around my garbage in my backpack until returning to the hotel at night. Yet, you never see garbage on the streets or in the train stations. While riding the public train every day, I never saw one piece of garbage left behind, or graffiti on the seats. The trains were spotless, which is something you would never see in America.

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The clean streets of Japan (1)

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The clean streets of Japan (2)

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While in Tokyo, we had the opportunity to go see a baseball game at Tokyo Dome. The stadium was indoors, which was unique, but something else I noticed was the lack of garbage present both during and after the game. Before fans left the dome, they gathered up all their garbage, as well as any stray flyers and tickets. Nothing was left behind, which is very different from baseball games in the United States. That is one thing that I really respect about the Japanese people. It reminded me of the World Cup when Japan lost, yet the fans still cleaned up after themselves. This was a very respectful and honorable move on their part, and also a reflection of Japanese culture in general.

Art Scene at Roppongi Hills

Filed under: Culture,Exploring,Tokyo — geajapan @ 11:21 am

By Natasha Cirisano

Roppongi Hills is basically the Rodeo Drive of Tokyo: high-end shops, careful planning, and beautiful architecture. I actually did a project on the Mori Tower (which is located at its center) for one of my Japanese art classes, so I wanted to see it for real. When I stepped out of the subway and saw the entrance ahead of me, I felt like I had already been there! It reminds me strangely of my hometown, Miami, where a lot of the art and fashion scene is concentrated in this same kind of rising upscale “midtown” area. Most of the Mori Tower, the main landmark of Roppongi, consists of offices, but there is an art museum on the 52nd floor complete with a three-sixty viewing deck of the entire skyline of Tokyo. The view is well worth a trip – you can get right up to the glass, which is vertigo-inducing, but also a major Instagram moment (and for half the price of the Tokyo Skytree). Even from the top of the tower, Tokyo seems to stretch on and on in every direction. Everything looks like some sort of miniature of itself, like someone built the entire city out of Legos complete with little toy cars on the highways and carefully stacked buildings. Here is one of the many pictures I took from the viewing platform:

View from Mori Tower Observatory.

View from Mori Tower Observatory.

Next, I visited the Mori Art Museum (included in the ticket to the observatory – again, good value), which had an exhibition about the world seen through the eyes of children. One of my favorite Japanese artists, Yoshitomo Nara, was exhibited (no photos allowed!), and I also watched this surrealist-type silent, animated short film which seemed like it had some subversive themes about sexual maturity, but that’s just my interpretation…

Still from film.

Still from film. I actually really liked this piece. It was subtle enough that you could just watch it as a pretty cartoon, but also obvious enough that the themes of children learning about reproduction and sexuality definitely came through.

At the end, there was a picture book library with books recommended by all of the artists. Surprisingly, many of Nara’s recommendations seemed like they had an Eastern European or Russian aesthetic, which I did not expect from him given that he has stated that much of his inspiration comes from American punk rock. However, seeing as though Nara has illustrated a picture book himself, it did not surprise me that he had so many favorites.

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Some books recommended by Yoshitomo Nara.

Overall, I really like Japanese art because I don’t see as much of a hierarchy here between fine art, design, and illustration. In America, people who enjoy work in the “anime/manga style” or those that do illustrative, narrative, or figurative works are often denigrated as “less than” fine artists. There is also a real separation between traditional artists who work with materials like oil on canvas and digital artists who “paint” with Photoshop and a tablet. It is very difficult to get digital art into a gallery, and styles associated with digital work (like more fantastical images) are relegated to the world of concept art for video games or movies. On the other hand, I think the idea of what constitutes “fine art” in Japan is more open to these ways of working. For example, I found this gallery in the Mori Tower showcasing contemporary paintings by an artist named Haruna Tagawa. Though oil on canvas, the smooth blending and whimsical style of these pieces looked like what America still considers underground digital or fringe work. Seeing this type of work in such a prestigious arts building gave me hope that the styles I enjoy are accepted at least somewhere by the larger art world!

One of my favorite paintings by Haruna Tagawa.

One of my favorite paintings by Haruna Tagawa. I really liked her use of distortion to make the girl appear fish-like, the oddly-shaped pupils, and the way the water is reflected on the forehead. The piece is about five feet tall.

The last place I visited in Roppongi was the Issey Miyake 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT museum in Tokyo Midtown. The museum called the artists exhibited “image makers” instead of artists or fashion designers, because, it explained, they didn’t want to separate visual culture into categories. Like Issey Miyake’s fashion designs, beautiful imagery spans both the functional and decorative, two-dimensional and three-dimensional, high brow and low brow spectrum. The museum itself was a blend of photography, fashion design, and architecture, as the space itself seemed like a modern sculpture.

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Heel-less shoes by Noritaka Tatehana at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT. (There is also a place where you can try them on, if your feet are small enough.)

Outside view of 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT architecture.

Outside view of 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT architecture.

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21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, interior view.

From the carefully curated white walls of the Mori Art Museum to the cluttered bookshops of Jimbocho, art is everywhere in Japan, and I think this contributes to the fluidity between art, design, and illustration. Visual culture is not bounded by the walls of the gallery. Just as much as I enjoyed the “official” museums, I loved going through the manga stores and looking at the pictures on all the covers. Even though I couldn’t read any of the stories, I could look at the covers and wonder what they were about. There is a strong sense of the human narrative connected with the art here, which I don’t see as much in contemporary American gallery art, where conceptual or abstract work is more “trendy.”  Here are some of my favorite manga covers:

The curls in her hair are so good!

The curls in her hair are so good!

Loved that intricate hair piece.

Love that intricate hair piece.

Inspired by all the art that I have seen here, I went to Bumpodo (an art store by Sakura Hotel) and bought myself a set of Copic markers (used for manga, $3-4 in Japan, but $8 in America!), some illustration board, and a whole lot of gel pens and ink liners. I can’t wait to make some drawings of my own. We’re leaving Japan soon…but here’s a last work in progress shot that I will take with me on my next study abroad to Australia.

Copic markers and lineart.

Copic markers and lineart.

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