October 1, 2014
By Stephanie Liang
Tokyo Disneyland was absolutely magical. Although I did choose a very busy day to go, I still had an amazing time.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Tembo Galleria
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.
September 2, 2014
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:
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…
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
August 29, 2014
By Tanya Yang
One of the first things you’ll notice in Japan is the abundance of bikes — maybe not as dense as rush hour on Trousdale, but it’s getting there. Walk through the streets of Tokyo and, within just a block or two, you could count up to hundreds of them, neatly parked on the sidewalks.
While this didn’t surprise me too much, I didn’t expect to see such a wide variety of people using a bicycle as a way to commute. Having lived in LA my whole life, I’ve been accustomed to seeing people driving around most of the time, or spotting the odd health-conscious soul biking around downtown or Santa Monica Beach. Before coming to Japan, I had assumed that most people walked or took the subway to work. However, the reality is that wherever you go in Japan, you can observe businessmen, gaggles of schoolgirls, women in heels, young children, and mothers pedaling their way around the city on bicycles. One thing that caught my eye was the amount of baby-friendly bikes with seats attached to the back — you’ll often see one or two toddlers perched there.
By Ryan Bobell
On a very dark and rainy June 23, I made one of the most important nerd pilgrimages of my life; I traveled to the Pokemon Center in Tokyo. Pokemon Centers, for those who may not know, are stores dedicated solely to selling merchandise from the Pokemon franchise. When we arrived I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; I had only heard of friends of friends who had made the trek before bringing back large quantities of Pokemon goods to the United States as presents and souvenirs.
As we ran up the rain slicked stairs from the metro station, the large Pikachu themed storefront came into view. Despite the depressing weather, I was stoked. After posing for a photo (see below), we charged on inside, where, sadly, we were not allowed to take any photos.
Inside the Pokemon Center, I quickly realized that it went far beyond simply being a Pokemon toy store. As I walked along the rows of merchandise, I found anything and everything Pokemon-themed. The shelves were stocked with everything from plushies to key-chains, and from cups to office supplies.
While most of our group made their way around the store casually perusing the goods, I methodically (and perhaps a bit maniacally) looked through every single item on every single shelf of every single isle of the store. I had brought with me a long list of my friends’ and siblings’ favorite Pokemon characters; I didn’t want to pass up a neat gift for anyone. Pokemon Centers are famous for their rare and exclusive Pokemon goods that you really can’t find anywhere else.
August 13, 2014
By Ryan Bobell
Getting around Tokyo was surprisingly easy.
I don’t mean to say that the public transportation, road infrastructure, and city planning were well designed, although they clearly were, and the excellent quality of Tokyo’s infrastructure was one of the most impressive things about my stay in Tokyo. As an English-speaking person with zero experience outside the United States, Tokyo was shockingly easy to navigate because of the extreme prevalence of English throughout the city.
The use of English on restaurants, store signs, road markers, and throughout the metro system was so abundant that it appeared as though English was nearly as common as Japanese throughout the city. This made exploring Tokyo safely and effectively a very simple matter. In fact, I would say that my experience using the Tokyo public transportation system was much easier and efficient than my experiences with that of my own hometown, Los Angeles.
Having such easy access to English road, metro line, and city district names really helped when traveling around Tokyo. While using the system, I often found myself wondering why English-language signs were so common in a nearly homogeneous Japanese population. I imagine, and light research backs my theory, that part of the common English usage is that the Japanese government is trying to proactively encourage foreign travelers and businesspersons to visit Japan. This, especially coupled with the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and a variety of multilingual signs and services, will be increasingly helpful to foreign tourism.
The only problem with having so much English in Tokyo (and it really is a problem) is that it often makes it harder to become fully immersed in the Japanese language. Whether a foreign visitor is wanting to jump into Japanese for fun, as a challenge, or to improve their speaking skills, the fact is that when there is so much English around they will inevitably use it as a crutch. I know that without so many signs in my native language I would have had to delve deeper into practical Japanese and further develop my conversational skills when asking for assistance or directions. Ultimately it becomes a debate of convenience versus immersion, and chances are that convenience will win out simply because the positives of an increase in foreign travelers and business are so important to the Japanese economy.
I will, however, concede that when I became (mildly) lost in Shibuya one day, the English-language signs and directions really did save my day.
August 7, 2014
By Stephanie Liang
Tsukiji Fish Market has the best sushi. Period. I visited the market around noon after deciding not to brave the usual 3am tuna auction, or the subsequent 6am lineup for freshly caught sushi. Besides, I don’t think my palette is refined enough to taste the difference between sashimi caught an hour ago and that caught 6 hours ago.
The first thing we saw when we entered the market was a giant tuna sitting out in front of a restaurant. It was by far the largest fish I had ever laid eyes on. As we walked through the market, various vendors offering fresh seafood bombarded us with sales and special prices.
We decided to wander around the market some more before sitting down for lunch. There were many food stands selling various items, such as Himalayan salt, almonds, dried seaweed, dried fish, and even sushi-shaped candy. It was a great place to buy souvenirs. We also found a store selling various cooking supplies.
Unsure about which restaurant to visit, we simply chose the restaurant with the longest line. Originally we had wanted to try Sushi Dai, but it was unfortunately closed on Sundays. We waited approximately 45 minutes for what would be the freshest, most delicious sushi I’ve ever tasted in my life. After being seated at the counter, the chef immediately greeted us and recommended a some menu options.
August 5, 2014
by Benjamin Surbrook
Near the beginning of our trip to Japan, one of the Meiji students asked our group if any of us wanted to go to a baseball game. Of course I immediately said yes as I had heard from many friends that Japanese baseball games were extremely exciting and entertaining because the fans are so into the games.
So, on Sunday, July 6th, Kenta, one of the Meiji student supporters, took a group of us to a game at the famous Tokyo Dome. Because there is so much to do there, we actually arrived about two hours before the game started. Upon arriving, we immediately went on the roller coaster right next to Tokyo Dome (fun fact: it goes 130 kilometers/hour!).
After that, because we still had some time before the start of the game, we decided to go to the batting cages. As someone who hasn’t played baseball in 13 years, I will admit this was a bit of a challenge, but it was still a lot of fun (even if the elementary aged children could hit more balls than I could).
July 29, 2014
by Sarah Anne Nakamura
During our first week in Japan we had the opportunity to visit Asakusa, where we went to our first Buddhist temple called Sensou-ji. This was one of the most fascinating places we visited during our program because the area was divided into two main areas: the temple and a small market called Nakamise-Dori.
Before walking to the temple, we made our way through the Nakamise-Dori market, which I calculated to have about 90 stores. Some of the stores had omiyage (souvenirs), shoes, clothes, bags, and unique sweets. I had the chance to taste fresh ningyou-yaki, which is a traditional Japanese cake that is often molded into a Japanese design. The name literally means “fried doll,” which is exactly what we got. I had a bird design, but other students got flowers and lanterns. We could see the ningyou-yaki being made right in front of us with a machine that did everything: pour the batter, bake the cakes, and then individually wrap each one. It was one of the best sweets I had the pleasure of trying in Japan.