Japanese High School Graduation (and Uniforms)

The end of February? Sailor uniforms? Bowing 800 times? Yes, this is a Japanese high school graduation ceremony.

The Japanese school year starts in April, for some reason. Kids still get a block of summer vacation too, so they come to school for two months and then they’re gone for a month. Weird!

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This picture was not from the rehearsal, but as you can see it’s not my first time being taught bowing.

Anyways, because of that, high schoolers graduate at the end of February instead. Ours was on February 28, preceded by rehearsals the day before, because as my teacher put it, “practicing is very Japanese.” In said rehearsals, students were made to scream, jump up and down while singing the school’s alma mater, and practice standing up and sitting down at the right speed over and over. We teachers got to watch, but we also had to practice how to bow properly (hot tip: it’s a 40° tilt and 3-count).

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Flags left to right are: Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, school emblem.

Actual graduation was a very serious, somber affair. It was punctuated with speeches from many different adults, from the principal to the board of education chair to the head of the PTA association. These were all, at least from the sound of them, very dry, and often read straight off a paper. There definitely weren’t any jokes, or even snappy pop culture references. It’s probably better that way.

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Clockwise from left: boy’s uniform winter version, girl’s uniform winter version, summer version. The boy’s summer uniform is just a white shirt and dark khakis.

The students just wear their regular school uniform for graduation, without any pomp or circumstance. My school’s uniform is pretty much the most archetypal Japanese uniform you can get, the classic gakuran for boys and serafuku (sailor uniforms) for girls, whose names you may not know but will recognize immediately upon seeing them. Accessories include a Roman numeral pin attached to your collar (for men) or neckerchief (for women) to indicate your year. Buttons are engraved with the school crest. To me, they’re pretty stylish. To the kids, they’re not fans and they want the same uniforms as other high schools in the area, with blazers and sweaters and ties. Between early 20th-century sailor uniforms or the mid-20th century Ivy look, it really is a win-win.

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Back to graduation, a play-by-play: everyone files in, sans third-years (high school is only three years). We stand and sing the Japanese national anthem, “Kimi Ga Yo.” The principal gives a speech. Each time someone new comes on stage, everyone is to stand, bow for 3 counts, and sit down. The third years enter and take their seats in the front rows, to the tune of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” A little unfitting, if you ask me, but hey, I’m just a foreigner observing. The rest was a blur of speeches and bowing. The students don’t physically receive any diplomas. At least, not during the ceremony. Instead, their names are called one by one, they yell “hai” and stand up. The underclassmen representative gives a thank-you speech from the rest of the school. More speeches from more people, as mentioned before, and well, that’s it. We also sing the school’s alma matter and few other select songs. No graduating student goes up on stage. No laughter, no applause. Not until the very end as they exit (to “Sotsugyo Shashin”; Graduation Picture), and yes, there are at least tears. Now the audience and teachers will be clapping, for maybe four or five minutes straight. And… the end! These brave men and women are now out and about in the world, some to college, some to technical schools, others home to study for more entrance exams, and oh, the places they’ll go!

Staying in a Capsule Hotel

Nightlife in Japan is ruled by an incredibly powerful force, one that many seldom dare reckon with– the last train. If you miss your last train home, usually around midnight, the choices are slim: you can either take a taxi at exorbitant prices, or stay out, hopefully intoxicated, till the first train about 5 hours later. You could also get a hotel, but that’s a little too expensive for most people. $100 just for a bed to sleep in for 8 hours? No way!

Or, you could stay in a capsule hotel for about 1/3 of the price.

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Instead of rooms, capsule hotels are made up of individual Space-age-looking pods, essentially human-sized drawers containing nothing but a bed, and perhaps a small TV on the roof your capsule. A typical one measures maybe 6.5 feet (2m) long by 3 feet (1m) tall. There’s just barely enough room to sit up properly. Thanks to this, the use of space is incredibly efficient– what you see above is enough accommodation for 12 people!

There are communal bathrooms, as well as showers. Some extra-fancy capsule hotels will even have their own onsen (public baths). It’s really the perfect solution for a cheap and quick overnight stay– the one we were at, the Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi located in Amerikamura, Osaka, was only 3000 yen ($30) a night. The Asahi Plaza, by the way, was one of such hotels with an onsen. Nice!

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Common in Japan but uncommon in hotel lobbies, we had to take our shoes off at the front. In such situations, lockers are provided so the front doesn’t get so cluttered, and I suppose so people won’t steal your shoes. However, we had to surrender said locker keys to the front desk, and we’d have to ask for it back any time we needed our shoes. The only key we were given at check-in was for a locker to store our stuff in. These lockers were in a room separate from the capsules, on the first floor. Up to the second floor we went to find our capsules. Exciting!

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The second floor was essentially a series of hallways shooting off into capsule rooms. Each room contained about 16-20 capsules. Efficient!

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Interior view facing in, back of TV on the top left.

Lo and behold, my “room” for the night– surrounded by plastic, on top of a rather thin mattress pad. A small nozzle in the back blows heated air, which you can manually point or close but otherwise not control the temperature. Other amenities included a TV, control panel, shelf, some cubbies, a power outlet (had for an extra 400 yen/$4), and a mirror. I crawled inside, and was happy to find that there was enough room to turn around, albeit kind of scrunched on all fours. Spacious!

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Interior view facing out.

Rather than any type of door, you get a thin pull-down blind, kind of like a straw mat. That is all you get for security/privacy/noise-cancellation– there are no locks anywhere on or in the capsule. In fact, according to their website, “hotel industry law” dictates that locks are straight-up not allowed in capsules. I suppose that might put claustrophobics a little more at ease. Sensible!

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The control panel is of the same sort you might find at any hotel, but I included a picture for posterity’s sake. Functions include alarm clock set, TV on/off, radio on/off, lights, and, unlike most hotels, an “emergency button” on the bottom left, protected by a swing-out plastic cover to prevent accidental pressings. Sorry to say, I have no idea what it does. I imagine it either summons an employee to your capsule or launches it towards Rigel 7. Handy!

In conclusion, for its combination of novelty, price, and convenience, I’d absolutely do it again. And, before I forget to mention, it was about as comfortable as it looks– you’re not sleeping on a cloud, but it is perfectly adequate and I slept like the dead anyways. One might even say… like a body in a morgue :^)

 

Travels Thus Far: Awaji Island

In the beginning, the surface of the Earth was without form, covered in oceans. The gods stirred this void with a spear, and drops of seawater fell back and hardened into islands. The very first island ever formed was Awajishima, and soon the rest of Japan would follow. And since this very same Awaji Island is what lies across from my city’s most famous landmark, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, naturally it was about time that I made the pilgrimage.

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Viewed from the mythical genesis of land on Earth, Awaji boasts some of the most beautiful views I’ve seen in Japan. It is also a quiet, tranquil place, without a single train (!!!) and everything seemingly shutting down at 5 PM. My short trip included:

Izanagi Shrine

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This shrine, purported to be the first in Japan, is dedicated to Izanagi and Izanami, the two gods who stirred the seas so long ago.

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There, you can also find the lucrative cure for baldness, in the form of some weird orb thing you can rub for good hair fortune. The idea comes from the fact that kami is both the word for hair and for god/spirit. Thanks to Rika for pointing that out, and translating the stone tablet!

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The shrine itself is good for students who need help with their studies, and for couples as well. There you have it– according to the gods that created the world, the three most important things for us mortals are: studying hard, harmonious love, and great hair.

Naruto Strait

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To get it out of the way now, yes, there is a city called Naruto in Japan, in the Tokushima Prefecture. Although there may be connection between the character and this city, the city itself is not dedicated to him the way “Conan Town” is, for example. Tokushima is a prefecture of Shikoku Island, the southwest neighbor of Awaji. It is known for the whirlpools that swirl under Naruto Bridge, formed from a unique combination of the tides or something.

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“Mine!”

You can take a short hour-cruise to get up close and personal with the whirlpools. When I was a kid, I always thought that whirlpools were the equivalent of oceanic black holes, sucking ships and smashing them to smithereens with great force. That is not the case at all; the ships can sail right next to them, and whirlpools aren’t even swirling fixtures of water, they just kind of coincidentally form for a few seconds and then dissipate. It was incredibly windy that day, so that may have affected the whirliness. Either way, besides that, I also had fun feeding the seagulls, who are so bold as to eat right out of your hand.

Uzushio Science Museum

Awaji Islanders seem like they can’t decide what to commemorate harder– the whirlpools, or Awaji onions, for which the island is even more famous. The Uzushio (Whirlpool) Science Museum area was dedicated to both. The actual museum had a miniature scale model of the oceans around Awaji, complete with a machine that simulates the tide patterns.

Then, in the actual center part, onions galore: a gift shop dedicated to all things onion– soups, chips, dressing, sauces, mixes, and just plain onions. There was even a claw machine where you could try a hand at winning your very own onion. You bet there was a line for it.

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If you manage to win one, you get to keep that and get a 1.5kg (3.3 lb) bag on top of it.

Outside, a large onion overlooks the eastern Pacific. There’s onion benches, and even onion wigs to pose on them with!

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In conclusion for the curious: Awaji onions are indeed sweet and fragrant, but admittedly they aren’t MINDBLOWING or anything. The scenery, however, was.

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Travels Thus Far: Kinosaki Hot Springs

Would you travel four hours in order to get naked around a bunch of strangers? If you ask me, the answer would be “absolutely!” In a country that holds 10% of the entire world’s volcanoes, this also means that selfsame volcanoes are heating up and mineralizing wonderful spring water for your bathing pleasure. There are thousands of onsen, or hot springs/public baths, throughout Japan, both indoor and outdoor, and this weekend I made a trip up to Kinosaki Onsen, on the north coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, to enjoy a few.

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After a grueling, though still physically comfortable 4-hour train ride, we were first greeted by a quaint (read: frustratingly primitive) train station where you have to pay in cash for transportation instead of the usual tappable, reloadable IC card. That’s okay, though, there’s a very nice anime lady welcoming us to Kinosaki!

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In front of Kinosaki Station.

Kinosaki is an onsen resort town, home to dozens of onsens along their main street, all within walking distance and set amongst scenic stone bridges overlooking a river teeming with koi, and traditional Japanese restaurants where best-of-your-life meals await. Since this is an onsen town, it is de rigeur to walk around in kimono and wooden block sandals (geta), and your hotel will even provide these for you, free of charge!

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Edited slightly for increased aesthetics.

At each onsen, you walk in, take off your shoes at the entrance, and head on over to the locker room. They, and the baths themselves, are separated by sex, and there are a few simple rules to follow: one, you must be naked. Two, you must shower before actually entering the water. Thirdly, you can only take with you a small towel, which you can use to cover yourself if you so wish, but more than that it’s for drying off. And don’t dip it into the water either.

If you felt a little nervous about being naked around other men, well, it’s pretty easy to cast that aside straightaway, because the moment you walk into the tatami-matted locker room, you’ll immediately see guys casually walking around completely in the nude, as well as guys dressing down to get to that state. Walk through another door, and there are rows of sit-down showers, with stools and shampoo/soap provided. Wash well, put your lone towel on your head (the cool way) or over your modesty, and head on over to the many facilities offered, from steam saunas to mineral pools and private one-man tubs.

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Inside Goshono-yu. Not my picture as you can’t take picture-taking devices with you. Credit goes to Shogo Nishiyama

Take some time to ponder the age-old question, “could I possibly be any more relaxed?” as you soak in the hot, silky, and mineral-rich waters of Japan, blessed by the heat and material bounties of Earth itself. It is said that the dozens of onsen around Kinosaki all have different specialties– one has waters good for fertility, another has waters good for successful marriage, another for general fortune, and so on. We did not check which ones were which, so I couldn’t tell you whether you’re reading the words of a luckier man today, or a more fertile man. At this stage in my life, I’d rather the former.

After some time, you’ve realized you shouldn’t get too comfortable and basically die here, it’s time to head to the next one. Put on your hotel yukata (male kimono) and wooden sandals, and clop on over to the next one. Yukata are fashionable as hell, as well as being practical for onsens, since it’s a robe that takes seconds to put on, and it helps dry you as you walk since you don’t wear anything but underwear underneath. Just make sure to tie your obi (belt-sash) behind or to the right, as wearing it in front was originally associated with prostitutes, and wrap the yukata left-side over right. The other way around is for funerals.

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In case you were wondering, geta wooden sandals are slightly more comfortable than they look, and are in fact superior to pathetic Western shoes– just kidding, they’re blocks of freaking wood, so they are not really comfortable either. They were a little awkward to walk in, and I had a feeling that you’re supposed to walk differently than with normal shoes. I also nearly fell over any time I had to bend down to pick something up. I’m sure I just have to learn the technique and/or practice, and in no time I’ll be running full-speed and striking down peasants with my katana.

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The exterior of Goshono-yu.

All in all, we visited three onsens, one we nicknamed “Splash Zone” for the drunk guy trying to pick a fight by deliberately splashing us (another behavior considered very rude), in actuality Goshono-Yu, Mandara-yu, and Ichino-yu. Since I couldn’t take pictures of the interior baths owing to the no-cameras rule, take a look at the tourist website!

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That concludes the onsen portion of my post, and let me make a brief, very honorable mention to the other Kinosaki specialty, snow crab.

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Yes, it was delicious. Quite possibly the best crab I’ve ever had in my life. It was fresh, of excellent flakiness, succulent, and tasted like it had been *just*! perfectly salted.

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Featuring the ” we” component. Clockwise from top right, myself, Siseko, Danien, and Cameron.

Wash it all down with sake, and that’s sayonara to a supremely blissful experience at Kinosaki.

What NOT to Do in Japan, According to Their Signs

There’s more to the signage in Japan than just poorly translated English. There’s also Japanese signs in perfectly-translated JAPANESE, warning you about the strangest things or otherwise just being really cute. All captions are translations/rough translations, not my commentary:

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“Please don’t feed the deer, it makes them get sick.”
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Beware of your valuables when visiting relatives’ graves. There’s thieves about!

 

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Train emergency stop button.
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Train manners: don’t block the doorway like this chameleon.
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Watch out for your baggage bumping into people.
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No right turns, but going straight and left turns are okay.

Christmas and New Year’s in Japan

KFC, disease-curing water, ominous fortunes, bar-hopping in Osaka, traditional New Year’s osechi-ryori, the reappearance of glorious festival food– the holidays in Japan were just as magical as they can be in the US.

“Kentucky for Christmas”

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The order form at my local KFC.

Although not as widespread as, say, the idea of turkey or ham for Christmas is in the US, it’s the closest you can get to the idea of a “traditional” Japanese Christmas dinner in a nation that’s 1.5% Christian. But don’t be mistaken– it absolutely is a thing, with reservations opening up weeks in advance, and hours-long lines on Christmas day if you failed to make one. KFC even offers a bottle of “shanmerry” (their words) alongside their whimsical Christmas-design buckets. I made my reservation about a week in advance, and even by then, they had already run out of said buckets and said champagne.

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Grungy 1980s aesthetic courtesy of Polaroid.

How was it? Well, they don’t change the recipe just for Christmas, but you better believe that combining that warm Christmas drunkenness with greasy, salty fried chicken makes for simultaneously one of the best and worst meals you’ll ever have in your life.

Osechi-Ryori: New Year’s Cuisine

The prevalence of Christmas in Japan is more for marketing and as a couple’s holiday than for religion or family. Instead, New Year’s Day is the most significant holiday in the Japanese calendar. The first part of this is osechi-ryori, traditional New Year’s food. It always comes in a special box, and although you traditionally cook it yourself, it has become much more common to order it instead. Most of the food is pickled, boiled, steamed, and the like: basically, food that could’ve been prepared a few days beforehand and would’ve kept well until the actual holiday.

img-2881It is, of course, best enjoyed with sake.

Hatsumode: Hiraoka Shrine and Saijinja

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Hatsumode is the tradition of visiting your family’s shrine to make prayers and offerings. Each shrine houses a particular god, and there’s a specific way to make a prayer:

  1. Throw a coin into the donation box at the front.
  2. Bow twice.
  3. If there’s a bell, ring it.
  4. Clap twice, to get their attention.
  5. Tell them your deepest desires and wishes.
  6. Bow once more as thanks.
Hiraoka Shrine, my girlfriend’s hometown shrine in Osaka. The rope in the middle rings a bell.

My girlfriend, her grandparents, and I also took a short hike up to Saijinja Shrine in Nara, famed for its mountain spring water with healing qualities.

linecamera-shareimageThe water was dispensed from this stone fountain thing, where people were waiting in line with empty bottles or standing by with metal cups provided by the shrine. It tasted fresh, very mineral-y, and exactly how you would imagine the boulder above to taste, but of course there was no sediment or anything like that. I definitely did feel a little more invigorated, enough to decide to buy some of it bottled– only 100 yen ($1)!

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Click to listen to the meditative sounds of Saijinja Spring!

There was also a bamboo stick piped into the spring, where you could listen to the wonderfully comforting sound of dripping water, echoing deep inside the recesses of of the Earth. Forgiving the background noise of passersby, you can listen a recording I made here!

IMG-6899.jpgYou can also get your fortune, omikuji, at shrines. They are printed on tiny scrolls of paper, and the one you get is determined by shaking around a bunch of sticks inside a wooden box. One stick comes out, and the number printed on it tells you which one to ask for from the shrine maiden. Now, these are the most legitimate fortunes I have ever received: firstly, they contain many different sections, from romantic relationships to your studies to that thing you lost. And they are not always positive or platitudinous either– one year, Rika’s mother got one that essentially said “You will never be happy or successful.” Mine told me to stop eating junk food, and the one I got for my friend told him to stop being lazy, and that the “person you are waiting for, will not come.” Dream-crushing fortunes, now that’s something I can get behind!

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Photo credit goes to Rika’s aunt.

For the price of another coin, you can wash down the sorrows of an outrageous fortune with a pour of sake.

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A shrine maiden pours sake in the background.

Hiraoka’s offering was very light and a little syrupy, with a hint of flowery sweetness.

img-3220Festival food makes its reappearance too– one of these is tamago senbei, which translates to the much less sexy-sounding “egg rice cracker.” It’s a shrimp-flavored rice cracker topped with takoyaki sauce, crunchy bits of tempura batter, and an egg fried over easy, finished off with a generous squeeze or two of Japanese mayo. If you like eggs, or delicious food at all, I’m sure you’d love tamago senbei. As a bonus, the eggs are sometimes fried in fun shapes, like hearts.

That was all New Year’s Day, January 1st. As for New Year’s Eve and the countdown to the beginning of 2019, it’s very much a party atmosphere like anywhere else. I spent it outside a club in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. The name and the details, I can no longer recall.

26 Things You Can Do and See at a Japanese Convenience Store: From A to Z

To see the heights to which the concept of convenience can reach, look no further than the humble, ubiquitous konbini— the Japanese convenience store. To avoid saying konbini 800 times, I will just namedrop all the chains I’ve ever seen. Here are 26 things you can see/do should you ever find yourself in one:

  1. American dogs. Konbinis feature both American and Japanese junk food. At the hot food section, you may be able to buy an American dog, i.e. a corn dog.

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    A bento lunch from 7-Eleven. Includes rice, pickled radish, Hamburg steak (basically Salisbury steak), a piece of fried chicken, a potato croquette, a piece of salmon, and tamagoyaki (rolled omelette). Will set you back about $4.70.
  2. Bento boxes. They’ll heat it up for you, too!
  3. Cash withdrawal. Every konbini has an ATM, which are necessary in the land where banks close at 3 PM on weekdays, are not open on weekends, and are much less widespread than 7-Eleven and friends.
  4. Dine in. Some konbinis have small dining areas so you don’t have to wait another moment to enjoy that steaming bento box!img_3801
  5. Erotic literature. Are you, too, a Harvard-educated man/woman who still enjoys the high-class art of printed pornography? Then support your local giant-boob artist and head down to Lawson’s today.new doc 2018-12-14 08.35.01-1 (1)
  6. Fried chicken… for Christmas. Did you know that traditional Christmas dinner in Japan is… Kentucky Fried Chicken? Reservations open weeks in advance, and if you miss the deadline then it’s okay, you can still go with the equally-as-good konbini versions.
  7. Get your Amazon package. You can order things online and have them shipped to your local Sunkus for pickup instead. This may be beneficial because deliverymen will not leave packages if you are not home, you have to deal with the dreaded redelivery notice instead.
  8. Hot bottled drinks. In addition to cold bottled drinks, there will also be a hot bottle section to get your portable tea/coffee fix.5f960e39-540c-42d8-a6c1-c63117a3f26d
  9. Instant ramen. If you weren’t really a fan of it before, you’ll probably become one once you’re here. From seafood to curry to Pringles, the possibilities are limitless.
  10. John Player Specials. Likely one of the coolest-named cigarettes ever, konbinis also offer an outside smoking area where you can enjoy it. Unlike the US, where smoking is allowed nowhere indoors but in practice is allowed EVERYWHERE outdoors, Japan is the opposite. Smoking on the street is a kind of no-no, but there are many designated outdoors smoking spaces and indoor smoking rooms.

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    This bag includes 3 miso Kit-Kats! See bottom right.
  11. Kit-Kats. It’s popular to bring back strawberry or green tea kit-kats as a souvenir for people back home. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg– there’s flavors that we in the States cannot even fathom, from pumpkin to miso and wasabi.
  12. Lemon Coke. And to round it out, there’s peach and even coffee Coke!
  13. Mail packages and lettersScrew the post office, come to Daily Yamazaki instead!
  14. Nigiri sushi. I believe American 7-Elevens also sell sushi, but for some weird reason I can’t figure out, there’s just something about sushi in Japan that seems less shady. And would you believe, in general I have found cheap sushi in Japan to be just “OK,” not much different from cheap sushi in the US.
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    Utsunomiya City omiyage. These are rice crackers in the shape of gyoza dumplings, which they are famous for.
  15. Omiyage. Omiyage are regional souvenirs, usually in the form of individually-wrapped cookies, rice crackers, pastries, etc. with a flavor/design unique to that region. It is a societal expectation to bring back omiyage for your coworkers whenever going somewhere. For this reason, many konbinis in touristy/well-traveled areas will sell such souvenir boxes.
  16. Postage stamps. You can buy stamps at the konbini too, how exhilarating!
  17. Quaff a beer or three outside. Public drinking is not against the law in Japan, so aside from perhaps a few glances, you are free to sit on the curb and slug one back with the tomodachi, unharried by policemen.
  18. Rice balls. Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) are the grab-and-go equivalent of the sandwich. They come with different fillings from mere seaweed to salmon to bulgogi or pork and mayo.img_2625
  19. Strong. Even better than beer is Strong, a vodka-based carbonated cocktail-in-a-can, boasting percentages as high as 9%. If you’ll be drinking in Japan, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be pre-gaming with a Strong or two. That’s the strength of two standard drinks for less than $2.
  20. Trash cans. Public trash cans, like out on the street, simply do not exist. You don’t even find them in most public bathrooms (which is why many people still carry handkerchiefs). Even people climbing Mount Fuji are told to take their trash to the peak and back with them. Why so few trash cans? Apparently, they were taken away in response to a 1995 terrorist attack involving nerve gas bombs being dropped in places on the subway– it’s one less place for terrorists to plant something in the future.
  21. Utility bill payment. Your utility bills come with bar codes that can also be scanned and paid for in cash at the local konbini. That’s how I keep my water, gas, and electricity flowing every month.

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    The Ponta Pointo card, used at Lawson’s.
  22. Verify your point balance. Every chain has their own rewards card, of course featuring a cute animal mascot. You can earn points towards future purchases, and even win prizes like stuffed animals during special promotions!
  23. Warm up. Found yourself woefully underdressed for winter? Stop in FamilyMart and equip yourself with some gloves, a beanie, or a scarf.
  24. Xerox a document. Most konbinis have printer stations.
  25. Yogurt soda. Carbonated Yakult? Yes! Yes!
  26. Zoo tickets. Concert tickets, sports tickets: anything you can buy online, you can also arrange to pick it up at the konbini.