September 3, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.