August 29, 2014
By Tanya Yang
When many people think about Japanese fashion, they immediately picture the lolita, Harajuku-esque style of dress — poofy skirts, hyper-feminine clothing, over-the-top cutesy accessories, and equally showy grooming. While I did see a fair share of such fashion in Harajuku’s famous Takeshita Street, this style of fashion is but a narrow – and definitely not representative – glimpse into the world of Japanese fashion. Before coming to Japan, I’d spent a decent amount of time exploring Japanese street style blogs and following the work and collections of several prominent Japanese fashion designers, including Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo (of Comme des Garcons), and Issey Miyake. Of them all, Yohji Yamamoto piqued my interest the most and helped shaped the lens through which I observed clothing during my time in Japan.
What drew me to Yohji was that despite his global renown and presence in the fashion world, he consistently embodied certain uniquely Japanese aspects within his work. Best known for monochromatic, drapey, androgynous, and often avant-garde clothing, he once stated, “I think perfection is ugly. Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.” His sentiments fall in line with the philosophy/aesthetic of wabi-sabi, or the beauty and acceptance of imperfection, among other things. Furthermore, many of Yohji’s designs seek to deconstruct or stray away from the typical image of femininity (e.g., emphasizing an A-line or shapeless silhouette as opposed to the typical hourglass). Focusing on timeless elegance over trends, Yohji has remarked that “It meant something to me – the idea of a coat guarding and hiding a woman’s body. For me, a woman who is absorbed in her work, who does not care about gaining one’s favor, strong yet subtle at the same time, is essentially more seductive. The more she hides and abandons her femininity, the more it emerges from the very heart of her existence.”
With this context in mind as we explored Tokyo, I immediately noticed that women in Japan, in general, dressed more conservatively than their American counterparts. Longer hemlines, higher necklines, more neutral colors overall and rarely any exposed shoulders in spite of the high heat and humidity. While some might have deemed their clothing boring or even matronly, I found it fascinating to observe how they worked around these “restrictions” with layers, varied textures, drape, and the occasional interesting detail. A large majority of girls around college age still dressed very femininely and trendily, in styles that would be deemed “twee” or cutesy in the US, but I found it refreshing that a lot of females I spotted on the street sported monochromatic, more shapeless garb. Moreover, I enjoyed seeing male fashion manifest itself in ways that would be deemed unmanly in the US – bags, clutches, bucket hats, and shorter shorts. Also, the prevalence of male white-collar workers in Japan has spawned a whole population of sharply-dressed elderly men, a trend I enjoyed observing (and something the US seems to be sorely lacking).
All in all, I came to Japan with only a surface level understanding of certain fashion subcultures and designers, and having no idea of what to expect the average layperson to wear. Several aspects surprised me, such as the degree of conservatism, but what I enjoyed the most was seeing how some of the overarching elements of Japanese philosophy and culture trickled their way into day-to-day fashion within this homogeneous country.
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 Charlsie Hoffman
I first ran into yukatas at Disney Sea. Being the foreigner that I am, I yelled out, “Look at the cute kimonos!” The Meiji students I was with, however, immediately corrected me, informing me that what we were seeing were not kimonos, but actually yukatas. Sounding very similar to the past tense conjugation of the adjective good (yokatta), I was deeply confused by this word until it was written out for me. Throughout the rest of my stay in Japan, though, I didn’t regularly see women in yukatas, but it wasn’t unusual to see one occasionally.
To the inexperienced eye, yukatas and kimonos are hard to differentiate. In layman’s terms, a yukata is a light summer kimono. Both decorative robes with long sleeves and a sash, a yukata can be distinguished from a kimono by a few characteristics: the cotton material, a single collar as opposed to the kimono’s double collar, and sock-less footwear, as opposed to socks always being worn with a kimono. (Disclaimer: There are always exceptions, but these are some of the most noticeable differences, according to my experience. When in doubt, if it’s summer, then it’s most likely a yukata!)
Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto is well known for its geishas, which make the city an alluring destination for people, like myself and Natasha, who wish to dress up and walk around in more traditional clothing. With enormous help from our TA, we made an appointment to get the whole shebang (yukata, shoes, purse, and hair). At first, I was apprehensive that my enthusiasm to experience and be a part of the culture through dressing up would be misconstrued as racist, but I was reassured by my Japanese acquaintances and classmates alike that no one interprets it that way. Reassured, I practically skipped all the way to the yukata store from sheer excitement.
The building was modern and unassuming, with the only indication that we were in the right spot being girls dressed in yukatas going in and out of the entry area. We had already been warned that the process would take about an hour, but it became real when we walked in, took our shoes off, and then were offered a bag to carry our shoes around in; I immediately thought, oh man, we are going to be here awhile. Natasha, the only other brave soul to experience getting dressed up, and I were then ushered to the second floor for our first step: picking your yukata.
Choosing a yukata is not as easy as it may sound. If you are an indecisive person, I recommend you never go through this experience. With all the elaborate, colorful, and diverse patterns available, it was excruciating having to pick only one robe. Then, after choosing a robe, we had to pick a sash, then shoes, then a purse, and then a rope belt. My head was swimming from all the decisions and options. Natasha was having an equally difficult time, and we relied on each other and the women working there to come to our conclusions. After about 45 minutes of second-guessing, we made our final decisions and were ushered to the fourth floor for our dressing.
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 8, 2014
by Natasha Cirisano
Japanese calligraphy in four words: Harder. Than. It. Looks. On our first Saturday at the Yamanaka Lake retreat, the Meiji students set up a calligraphy lesson for us to learn to write our names. I’m a design major, so I thought it wouldn’t be too difficult… but I was wrong. Three characters might seem easy at first, but the calligraphy really showed me the care and importance that goes into every stroke of Japanese writing. In Japanese language class, we learned how to write the alphabet with an emphasis on the stroke direction and stroke order of each letter. At first I thought this was just a tedious, extra element to memorize, but when we did calligraphy I saw how these ideas really stemmed from the way the ink medium worked when these letters were written with a brush back in the old days. The direction and order of the strokes are crucial to create the particular weight and balance the letter needs, and passing the brush across the paper in the wrong direction makes the letter much harder to draw because it is against the flow of the ink.
Compared to Western calligraphy, which also depends heavily on the direction and order of the strokes, the Japanese version is much more about showing motion even though the letters are static forms. While I usually picture monks hunched over parchment paper with quill pens painstakingly shaping every letter, Japanese calligraphy is more like a dance between concentration and spontaneity. I felt like the letters were people doing ballet or maybe even martial arts – one stroke, an arm jabbing to the right, the next, a leg kicking up and then coming down again. The art is mental as much as it is physical, and I had to train my muscle memory as much as my mind to make it beautiful. For example, to be successful, I had to get used to holding the brush upright at a 90-degree angle from the paper, which feels awkward at first, but provides a lot more control over the thickness and thinness of the strokes. Kenta, my teacher, kept correcting me when I fell back into holding the brush like a normal pencil! Next, the composition was the mental part; I had to pay attention to the angle of the strokes or else everything would look awkward and out of balance. It’s funny, because even though I could not read the characters, I could tell when a stroke “felt” wrong. Good design is a universal language. It seems that even people who come from two different sides of the world can “sense” compositional oddities and imbalances, even if one person (me!) first sees the characters as abstract art rather than as instruments of ideological and symbolic meaning.
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 30, 2014
by Lisa Peng
We arrived in Japan in mid-June, right in the middle of the rainy season. This rainy season is called tsuyu (梅雨, “plum rain”) in Japan, and it is a very unique climate in East Asia. From late May to July, Japan transforms gradually from spring to summer. The humidity increases, and rain showers become more and more unpredictable.
For those of us from Southern California, the tsuyu season could be considered unbearable, even though it was not too hot in terms of temperature. Because of the high humidity, it was really stuffy and felt like we were in a steam room or sauna. The sweat stays on your skin, never evaporating, and it becomes really sticky. I also learned a Japanese term that is specific for this kind of weather: mushiatsui (蒸し暑い, “steaming hot”). The unpredictable rain also tricked a lot of us. There was one day when at least half of us arrived at class wet, because it had not looked like it was going to rain when we had departed from the hotel, and many of us did not even think about bringing an umbrella. From this perspective, I would say that I really dislike tsuyu weather.
However, when it comes to visiting temples and shrines, tsuyu season is definitely the best time to go. After a rain, the air becomes fresher, and dust has been washed away by the rainwater. It feels like the entire place becomes purified and ready for us to visit.
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.