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.
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.
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.
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.
July 17, 2014
by Sarah Nakamura and Janet Hu
During our last week in Japan, we had the opportunity to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Itsukushima Island, or as it’s more commonly known, Miyajima Island. We arrived on Miyajima Island by ferry around 10:00 AM to begin our full day adventure in Hiroshima. Similar to our experience in Nara, we were greeted by the wild deer that walk freely on Miyajima Island. Although the weather was hot and humid, we were lucky to avoid the typhoon that had been predicted to arrive during our stay in Kyoto. When we visited Itsukushima Shrine, we were lucky to go during low tide, allowing us the opportunity to walk up to the Torii Gate. During high tide, the lower part of the gate is submerged, and it supposedly appears to be floating on water. (more…)
July 11, 2014
by Natasha Cirisano and Stephanie Liang
Compared to Tokyo, our visit to Yokohama this Wednesday brought us into what seemed like a sleepier, smaller town that we could more easily navigate because it was not so dense and crowded. Instead, towering structures like several skyscrapers and a Ferris wheel served as landmarks that we could see from the street, while the highly condensed buildings and small alleyways of Tokyo seemed to close in on us. This new, quiet city contained lots of interesting sights, from the Emigration Museum to Chinatown to the famous Cup Noodles Museum, that we explored throughout our stay.
Our first Yokohama destination was the Emigration Museum, where we learned about the many stages of Japanese migration from the 1800s onward. We were surprised to see that passports existed even before there were photographs. Instead, the passport documents contained physical written descriptions of the people that held them! We were also interested in the fact that many Japanese settled in Brazil, of all countries, because the cultures seemed so vastly different. One observation our class made after our visit was that the tour guide felt the need to emphasize that these Japanese migrants were searching for ways to expand their experience and economic opportunity, not as deserters of their homeland. Later, we learned that the Japanese government gave false hope to migrants leaving the country in search of wealth, because it felt it could not support them, and that there have been efforts to rectify the way these immigrants were treated. This probably played into certain statements praising the migrants that were made in the tour. Since visiting the Japanese war museum near Yasukuni Shrine, we have been more sensitized to the variety of narratives and biases museums can have, and how they re-write history as much as they explain it.
Next, Chinatown in Yokohama fused Japanese and Chinese culture together. Having been to many Chinatowns in America, we noticed many differences between Chinatown in Japan and US Chinatowns. One of the biggest differences was the fact that many signs were predominantly written in Japanese Hiragana or Katakana. Many of the workers in the Chinatown restaurant we visited spoke Chinese, but were ethnically Japanese. The Chinatowns in America mostly consist of Chinese workers who sometimes speak only Cantonese or Mandarin. This led us to the conclusion that the Chinese population in Japan is not as dense as the Chinese population in America.
July 9, 2014
by Kelli Kosaka and Lisa Peng
This weekend we traveled to Yamanaka Lake at the base of Mt. Fuji with 19 students from our host school, Meiji University. This trip provided us with a great opportunity to bond with the Meiji students in a Japanese-style seminar house by the lake.
The first day was a chance for us to get to know each other through icebreakers and time spent together on the bus ride and during dinner. We also lit hanabi (fireworks) to celebrate Janet’s birthday. She turned hatachi (twenty), the age at which you become an adult in Japan. Thus people value this day a lot here.
July 23, 2013
By Jairo Hernandez
Gray, foreboding, and cloudy skies welcomed our group to the Peace Memorial Museum and Park in Hiroshima. After a rather quick guide through the museum, we were sitting in a room, listening to the chairman of the museum talk about world peace.
A world without nuclear weapons. That is the desire of the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. No revenge, no atonement. They just want a simple promise. World peace is no easy feat, and they realize that. Years, decades, or generations, no one knows how long it will take, but the survivors just want a promise: avid work from now until a time where a world without nuclear weapons is established. Our current security measure of giving threats is no real security measure and can cave in at any moment. Thus these surviving members just want a world with a security measure that revolves around peace and understanding, not fear and threats. This is their message and the message the chairman wants spread throughout the museum.
This trip had a great impact on me. The rainy skies and gloomy weather reflected my state of mind as I walked out of the room and museum, deep in thought and reflection. However, just as you exit the museum, there is a memorial park with three significant structures that also reflected my state of being in a more concrete manner.
By Olga Lexell
After my peculiar encounter with the “naughty” deer of Nara, I was pleased to find that the deer of Miyajima Island were far more docile and less interested in cookies. The island itself is home to Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and important spiritual location, and the torii gate is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful views. Luckily the tide was low enough that we were able to walk all the way up to the torii gate, which was surrounded by yen! We guessed that people must have thrown them at the gate, perhaps for making wishes or other spiritual gestures.
Miyajima Island was among the most traditional places I’ve seen in Japan. From its Edo-inspired architecture and lack of amenities like traffic lights, to the numerous people we saw in kimonos, Miyajima Island was the polar opposite of Tokyo. The island prides itself on its spirituality, and for a long time women were not even allowed to visit to maintain the island’s purity (which is luckily no longer the case). Itsukushima Shrine was beautiful. I’m always amazed at the care and effort put into maintaining Japan’s many religious and spiritual sites; there was not an inch of peeling paint in sight on any of Itsukushima’s bright red pillars. The views of the torii gate from the shrine were breathtaking as well, and I wish we had gotten the chance to see how the shrine looks at high tide.
July 22, 2013
By Evan Brown
This week we traveled west to the Kansai region and experienced a more traditional side of Japanese culture than the bustling life of the ultimate metropolis, Tokyo. The group departed for Kyoto early Monday morning, but David and I were already in Kansai having taken advantage of the seven-day rail pass in order to travel to Kobe and Osaka. Sally Kim visited a friend in Osaka, and John went back to Tohoku, where he had lived for a few months in high school.
We all converged at Kyoto Station at lunch time on Monday without much trouble, and everyone found food quickly before we boarded a bus to Nara. I was pleasantly surprised by the serious supply of my favorite convenience store food, Tuna Dog, at the Family Mart in Kyoto Station.
In Nara, there were a lot of deer in the area surrounding the temples we visited, and constantly being fed by humans had made them a little bit naughty. It was, for the most part, fun to feed and play with the deer, but their aggressive behavior was also somewhat disconcerting, as Olga soon found out.