Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

Shopping for a Creative Life

June 25, 2010
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Shopping is an integral part of your travels in Japan. If it isn’t in your itinerary, it should be. You do not, however, need to mindlessly follow the horde of Japanese consumers just for the sake of it. Shopping in Japan can also be as cultural of an experience as is ringing the bell in a Shinto shrine.

Calling itself the “Creative Life Store,” Tokyu Hands is a department store chain that houses multiple floors of stationery, gifts, cooking utilities, home decorations, furniture, gadgets, and super kawaii toys. Wandering around the huge complex, you will quickly realize that apart from providing hours of pleasure and making you miss the last train back to the hotel, Tokyu Hands gives you an insightful glimpse into popular Japanese culture and Japanese ingenuity. Their biggest branch is in Ikebukuro and is well worth the visit. Many of the goods make great gifts to take home, and aren’t expensive. Take a look at their brochure too.

Thanks to the invention of the Internet, you can do some online browsing of the Tokyu Hands merchandise without traveling all the way to Japan. Find something unusual, extremely kawaii, or  bemusing? Send in your discoveries as comments for me and the other readers to see! The site is in Japanese, but that just makes it more amusing. Here’s some stuff I ran into when I was there:

One Big Happy Asian Family?

June 4, 2010
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If only I had a nickel for every time someone would be sure I spoke Chinese when I told them that I had grown up in Japan…

Though I don’t blame people for occasionally lumping the two countries together, sometimes even alongside South Korea. Japanese culture has been most strongly influenced by the Chinese – the Japanese Kanji that are essentially Chinese characters, the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, various foods that came from China (most notably the “Ramen” noodles), and much more. Japan has incorporated bits of Korean culture as well (see post on Yakiniku).

With their similar cultures, it is natural for these East Asian countries to share a sense of comradeship and solidarity, and they do. At the same time, however, it is mixed with a deep-rooted rivalry that once led Japan in the 1990s, for example, to accuse the Korean government of augmenting the rivalry of Korean citizens towards Japan in order to sustain its legality. It is a love-hate relationship that, much like the way democracy works only when there is a distinct homogeneous majority, is sustainable as long as the Japanese see themselves at the leader position. Up until recently the world’s second and third biggest economies have been playing quite nicely. The demands for exports in China have boosted fiscal recovery in Japan and the leaders of both nations have prioritized economic development and partnership, despite all the historical tensions originating from the Second Sino-Japanese War, aggravated further by Japan’s Prime Minister’s tour to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, developments in the off-shore gas field in the East China Sea, and independence disputes on the Senkaku Islands. It has been convenient for the Japanese to ride the wave of Chinese and Korean development as long as they were still years behind Japan, but now Japanese industrialists are feeling a strong blow to their pride as they slowly but surely fall behind.

What will happen when China, as expected, snatches Japan’s world’s #2 economy status next year, with South Korea at its tail? Japan’s only hope of maintaining its older brother role in the three-way relationship may lie in the upcoming World Cup. In 2002, when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the soccer events, the rivalry was intense. The Japanese expressed satisfaction in how East Asia was becoming a world power in football, while at the same time dreading the fact that their own team fell short of significant achievement. That time it was bearable for Japan, as it was still the undisputed overall leader in the area. However, it will have to do much better in general, and specifically outperform South Korea on the soccer field this time around if it wishes to hold on to the little dominance it has left in the East Asian love triangle.

Goodbye Facebook Stalking

June 2, 2010
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Dating someone initially is almost always awkward, especially if it’s a blind date. You would except that in Japanese society, which culture puts an emphasis on humility and submissiveness, the dating scene would be somewhat stagnant. In fact, the Japanese have come up with a system that outperforms any other in couples matching.

Who of you has ever tried to deliberately set two of your direct or indirect acquaintances up romantically? Right, all of us have. Then the idea of “Gou-kon,” literally meaning combined or merged companies, may seem painstakingly trivial to you at first, but hear me out.

Gou-kon is a Japanese group dating custom that involves a small gathering of two groups of people, an equal number of men and women (in the case of straights of course), usually taking place at a sit-down Japanese pub (“Izakaya”).

This assembly is not a random party; it is a premeditated plot. Gou-kon planning starts with a couple of people who already know each other, preferably from the opposite sex and single, and each of them gathers an agreed number of their single friends for a night out. The secret here is that it’s not a secret, but all the participants know that they are headed for a Gou-kon, and they want to meet new people for possible hook-ups.

The result is a large blind date, in which only the hosts know each other, and each of them only knows their side of the table. It’s taking two circles of people that are tangent at one point alone, and creating a third mutual area between them. The rest is taken care of by alcohol and great Japanese pub grub.

If you did not find a soul mate at a certain Gou-kon, it’s would not a big deal at all. These events are similar to business networking parties, in the sense that one contact leads to another until some partnership is formed. In the Gou-kon world, this means that the participants initiate new Gou-kon assemblies with their newly met acquaintances, and the networks expand exponentially.

What the Japanese have understood is that there is nothing wrong with wanting to meet new people, and that doing so individually may be uncomfortable. Their answer isn’t Facebook-stalking strangers on someone’s friends list. It’s Gou-kon.

A Case of OCD or Pure Genius?

May 30, 2010
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Just recently I published a post on the Japanese smoking and gambling epidemics. As I mentioned, almost 40% of men and 12% of women in Japan smoke today. Japanese laws now ban smoking in train stations, office buildings (except in designated rooms) and even on some streets, thus refining the constantly sought-after harmony in Japanese society between the smokers and non-smokers. Recent developments, however, could potentially facilitate cigarette smoking everywhere and anywhere, without ruffling anyone’s feathers. Impossible? Think again.

Just when I was ready to announce that the ultra-light 1mg-nicotine cigarettes and the “Kagi-tabacco” or “Snuff” (cigarettes in powder form for inhaling without smoking) were the pinnacle of Japanese ingenuity, Japan Tobacco (JT) announces the release of smoke-free, fire-less cigarettes.

These are shaped like regular cigarettes, but contain replaceable, specially designed cartridges of tobacco leaves and other flavoring ingredients. One cartridge lasts somewhere between half a day to an entire day, and the mouthpiece is reusable – This is perhaps more of a groundbreaking environmental invention than a technological breakthrough. Think of all the cigarette buds thrown away and the amount of CO2 released every single day with conventional smoking!

Since a part of cigarette addiction could be attributed to the habit of actually holding a cigarette, this new product allows people to get that satisfaction without the negative externalities imposed on others. Cigarettes are also a social accessory; going out for a smoke with a co-worker during a hectic day at the office is a crucial social interaction, providing a sense of comradeship and solidarity in Japanese culture. And when taking off early is frowned upon at the office, why not pass the time with hourly delicious, healthy cigarette breaks?

The “Zero-Style Mints” are currently sold for a budget price of 400 Yen including four cartridges, or 300 Yen with two cartridges. Assuming heavy smokers go through a pack of regular cigarettes a day (or two days at most), the new smoke-free, fire-less product seems to be much more economical. Could this be the turning point for Japan’s stagnant economy? Or would this exacerbate the aging of the Japanese population as people inhale less smoke into their lungs? Personally, I just don’t want to come home from a bar smelling like an ash tray anymore.

National Japanese Pastimes: Pachinko and Smoking

May 19, 2010
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According to the website, 38.9% of men and 11.9% of women in Japan smoke today. Although the percentage of smoking amongst Japanese men has dropped from its 83.7% peak in the 80’s, Japan still remains one of the heavy-smoking industrialized countries. The numbers for women are even more alarming, as they have not dropped at all in the long-term. In fact, I have personally observed that while there may not be more Japanese females who smoke, they certainly smoke much more, now that it is significantly less taboo for them to do so in Japanese society (and perhaps because they now occupy similar stressful job positions as men).

The continuous drop in smokers probably has to do partially with strict enforcement of laws prohibiting smoking in office buildings (except designated smoking rooms), train stations, and other public areas – including entire streets! Yes, you could find yourself walking down an ordinary, quiet street during your travels in Japan and be asked to turn off the cigarette in case you tried to light up. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other place.

Although I firmly believe that the way to combat smoking is in creating alternative positive incentives, images and role models (mostly sports-related) instead of taxing and banning, the almost ridiculous price of cigarettes in Japan could be playing a significant role in the Japanese smoking epidemic – especially teen smoking. Despite recent tax surges, a pack today goes for around $4, which in the Japanese economy is still very affordable, and allows easy access to almost anyone.

That being said, every Japanese cigarette vending machine offers a vast selection of smokes, in terms of nicotine content. If we accept the conclusion of studies that negatively correlate the addictiveness of cigarettes with the amount of nicotine in them, it’s fantastic that you can find 1mg cigarettes as opposed to only the regular 4-6mg and up. (The addictiveness depends, according to these studies, on genetics as well, meaning 1mg could be just as addictive for some.)

Cigarettes may be harmful physically, but many Japanese lose their souls to gambling. Certain polls ( show that 60% of the Japanese have tried Pachinko in the past, and 12% still play regularly (18% in other polls). Pachinko is a legal gambling game, in which you insert small metal balls into a vertical pinball-like machine, where they jump around until they fall at the bottom. (See Pachinko Photograph.) Pachi-Slot is a cross between Pachinko and slot machines – 8% of the population in Japan is currently addicted. The image of people glued to their plastic chairs, hours on end, inside huge Pachinko parlors with endless rows of these machines, deafening cacophony, and suffocating cigarette smoke, is something to be witnessed by every Japan traveler. There are over 12,000 of these places throughout Japan!

Stress is a part of the Japanese way of life just as Starbucks is for New Yorkers (though it could be that the Japanese are catching up on that one). They work long hours and have strict etiquette and societal norms, but take pride in their way of doing things. Some steam, of course, must be blown off. Whether cigarette smoking and Pachinko are national pastimes and simply part of who the Japanese people are, or instead harmful and unwanted epidemics, are for you to decide.

Japanese Pachinko

Japanese Pachinko

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    Born in Tokyo. Lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for over a decade combined. Author of the book, "All-You-Can Japan: Getting the Most Bang for Your Yen" -

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